There’s a simmering subgenre of mystery fiction that you might call dark crime or horror noir, a shadowy, disturbing niche occupied—on occasion—by such writers as Joe R. Lansdale and Cormac McCarthy. It’s very much concerned with contemplating the darkest of human behavior and psychology. It’s also fertile ground for author Gabino Iglesias, a Latino writer who’s bringing his formidable talent (and the cultural power of his ethnicity) to stories about the border, the barrio, and the bizarre—and the brutal characters who inhabit the dingy corners of those realms. For Iglesias, horror and the supernatural are entwined with the sometimes violent human experience of the deep southwest.
Before penning his brand-new hardcover The Devil Takes You Home (poised to be his breakout), Iglesias wrote four novels—Gutmouth (2012), Hungry Darkness (2015), Zero Saints (2015), and Coyote Songs (2018)—a progression of fiction that has taken him from straight-out grisly monster horror to his current milieu of “border horror noir.” You might say that The Devil Takes You Home combines the supernatural cultural flavorings of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs with today’s hot subgenre of the blunt, brutal ethnic revenge tale, exemplified by the works of S.A. Cosby. Iglesias has essentially taken his most passionate themes and gotten down-and-dirty with them. The result is a novel that’s a fever dream of fantastical horror imagery and real-world violence, weaved in such a way that the reader is never sure what’s actually happening and what has been manufactured by desperation and delirium. And the question this book poses is: What’s the difference?
The Devil Takes You Home begins in grief. Our protagonist, Mario, has learned that his daughter Anita has been diagnosed with leukemia. It’s not a spoiler to say that Anita isn’t long for this world—and neither is Mario’s marriage to his beloved Melisa. The disintegration of his family will become the event that shapes the rest of Mario’s life; it’s what turns him away from the light and toward unspeakable darkness. Incapable of rising from the ashes of his immediate past (and from beneath piles of medical debt), Mario finds himself increasingly turning to his old crime connections—until he comes face to face with what appears to be the answer to his woes: that final assignment, the big haul, the dangerous trek across the border and back that will solve all his problems and perhaps bring a measure of redemption.
You can probably guess it doesn’t turn out to be so easy.
His mind consumed by the disaster his life has become, Mario sets off for the border with his old friend (and possibly duplicitous meth addict) Brian and cartel insider Juanca (who seems perilously unpredictable and rash). The wild plan is to essentially pull a con on the cartel, stealing a shipment of drug cash on its way back to Mexico, and shift blame to the cartel itself. It will be pulled off thanks to old connections inside and outside of foreign lands, not to mention lots of guns and a little sleight of hand. What this makeshift crew doesn’t expect is that they’ll soon be immersed in the supernatural and up to their necks in monstrous splatter. And all the while, they’ll be questioning each others’ motivations and allegiances, fearful of back-stabbing and betrayal. It’s a heady mix of emotions, when all Mario really wants is to be done with his criminal past and recapture his lost family by way of old social media posts.
For several reasons, The Devil Takes You Home is a challenging novel to evaluate. I believe it has an excellent tragic setup and a credible descent toward the living nightmare it becomes in its second and third acts. The deep focus on the character of Mario is powerful. But I don’t use the word nightmare lightly. Turns out, Mario has an unfortunate habit of hallucinating fiendish imagery from out of nowhere—and then snapping back to reality. It’s established from the start. And that means there are two ways to read this book. You can take it at face value and accept the obscene violence and supernatural activity of its later chapters as all too real in a world characterized by true evil. Or you can see the story as Mario’s inner tale: a life destroyed and a mind scrambled by the aftershocks, conjuring bedeviled visions to match the black passions of his shattered soul. That’s the way I prefer to read The Devil Takes You Home. Call the final acts of the book an extended series of death dreams, mixing the horrors of the cartel with our wildest and worst imaginings, bloody and gory and over the top. Because this book is over the top, filled with creature-feature mayhem and pulpily eviscerated bodies and juicy horror. The intersection of cartel violence and B-movie squelch can be uneasy at times—and that’s why I prefer imagining Mario’s plight as a flight of ferocious fancy. There are literal descents into hell in The Devil Takes You Home, down grungy ladders into border tunnels, and the supernatural things discovered there are perhaps the most precise way to describe what man can do to man. And, more important, what grief can do to a man.
The other reason The Devil Takes You Home is a difficult book to review is its casual and frequent usage of untranslated Spanish throughout. These foreign-language passages might come as thoughts or dialog or song lyrics or even lengthy monologues. (Some instances are translated, particularly toward the end, but many are not.) I understand the thinking behind the decision: This is a book whose Mexican culture and heritage are essential, and the language snippets provide cultural flavor. I go back and forth on the success of the implementation, but the upshot is that—as an English speaker/reader—I’ve missed out on the meaning of thousands of words in this book. Words that I’d really like to have understood. I’m still asking myself if the choice feels like a distancing tactic. Either way, it’s a fascinating decision.
Iglesias has penned an interesting read, and I think its potent imagery is at its most successful when considered allegorically. Perhaps the real story of The Devil Takes You Home is psychological, the demented altered state of a man at wit’s end. A man who has endured the bleakest of human emotions and experiences and can only cope with it through the holy, vengeful terror of blackest nightmare.