The Queen of the Cicadas tells the story of Belinda Alvarez, who has returned to Texas for the wedding of her best friend set to be held on a renovated farm. But legend has it that in the 1950s, a Mexican farmworker, Milagros, was brutally murdered, tied to a tree, and asphyxiated on cicada shells jammed down her throat. As the woman dies, the Aztec Goddess of Death pledges herself to Milagros. Now this farm is both cursed and haunted when Belinda — nursing a midlife crisis — arrives in 2019 for the wedding celebration. Mixed in with this recipe for horror is the handsome owner of the farm, Hector, who teams up with Belinda to uncover the mystery. What they confront goes beyond a haunting to the very real horrors of colonialism on both sides of the border. Castro’s expert storytelling upends classic horror tropes to make The Queen of the Cicadas an exhilarating and frightening literary ride.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: What inspired you to write a novel based on an urban legend?
V. CASTRO: I grew up in Texas, and there are so many urban legends stretching across time and cultures. As a child, these stories ignited my imagination and have stayed with me ever since. However, the urban legends we see in literature and film rarely reflect my heritage or experiences. I wanted to represent who I am and where I come from. There are so many legends and stories desperate to be told by us and featuring us. I grew up reading Isabel Allende, Sandra Cisneros, and Rudolfo Anaya. Their stories enriched my mind in ways other books did not. There was a feeling of comfort and familiarity because I could see where I came from represented. Of course, horror and dark fiction were my first loves, but there were no Latinx writers doing it on the scale of someone like Stephen King or R. L. Stine.
Your narrative weaves contemporary life — with all of its sexism and racism — with ancient Aztec beliefs. Did that process reveal anything to you as a writer and as a Mexican American woman?
I spent a lot of my life trying to assimilate to American life through relationships, media, education, how I dressed and presented myself to the world. It becomes exhausting when all those things still do not give you access to the dream you are sold for toeing the line. There are many aspects of the book I wrote as a reaction to the novel American Dirt because for me that epitomized this very aspect of life. Digging into my roots is a homecoming. By denying my history, I am denying myself. Being authentic in my true power is more satisfying than trying to please a society that says I don’t really deserve a seat at the table. If I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t, then I might as well say what I mean and mean what I say without fear.
Did you confront any obstacles — either internal or external — in shedding the shackles of assimilation and reconnecting with your roots in writing your novel?
Externally, my relationship suffered. People who benefit from you having a limited view of yourself do not like it when that changes. And this can go beyond personal relationships. Internally, I had to take control of my inherent power and believe in myself when no one else did and no one would give me a chance. Women of color have historically been denied many things and placed into boxes. To climb out with blind faith is difficult. You don’t know if your feet will touch ground, or you’ll fall from the clouds. The way my ancestors persevered gave me the strength. My great-grandmother worked fields and my mother is now an attorney. I write books. Every step is an obstacle, but every step is also another knot being untied from generational patterns.
What does the horror form offer you, as a writer, that other forms do not?
Horror offers a freedom to explore the darker aspects of life. Women of color are often made to feel they cannot express these parts of themselves, and this is an opportunity to do so. I want other women to read my books and know they are not alone. Their experiences are valid. They matter.
Which writers did you read when you first discovered horror fiction, and which horror writers do you read now?
I was a kid, so it was Alvin Schwartz. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was my favorite for years. But horror films from the ’80s like The Lost Boys and Fright Night really hooked me on horror. I also watched all of Stephen King’s books that were films at the time. Now I try to read as many indie horror writers as possible such as Gabino Iglesias, Sonora Taylor, Cynthia Pelayo, Hailey Piper, Sergio Gomez, Monique Quintana, and Rios de la Luz. In fact, I co-edited (with Cynthia Pelayo) an all-Latinx horror anthology, Latinx Screams, published last year by Burial Day Books. It’s a great selection of Latinx horror.
Daniel A. Olivas, a second-generation Angeleno, is the author of nine books including, most recently, The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press), and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press). He is the editor of the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press), and co-editor of The Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles (Tía Chucha Press).