“…a strange kind of magic ran in the water of Rancho Los Ojuelos, the kind that made the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca go mad, the kind that made mustangs swift and the land rich.”
Vampires of El Norte is the second horror novel by Isabel Cañas following her highly regarded debut, The Hacienda. As with her first novel, Vampires of El Norte combines elements of horror, romance, and historical fiction to create a chilling tale in an historical Mexican setting.
Vampires of El Norte alternates perspectives between Nena and Néstor, an adolescent couple in northeastern Mexico in 1837. Tensions are rising between the local Mexican ranchers and Anglo settlers who are crossing the border from Texas.
Meanwhile, Nena is fascinated by her grandmother’s folktales, which are haunted by menacing nocturnal creatures that suck the blood of their victims and leave them to die.
A nighttime tryst gone terribly awry causes Nena and Néstor to separate for nine long years. Néstor drowns his sorrows in a life of debauchery, while Nena trains as a healer in the art of folk remedies.
Nena and Néstor unexpectedly reunite as the Anglos bring full-scale war to Mexico. But can Nena forgive Néstor for abandoning her and succumbing to a life of vice? A possibly rekindled romance is set against the shadows of the Mexican-American War and the constant fear of an unspeakable horror.
Isabel Cañas manages a careful balance between the romantic and horror aspects of the novel. In my view, the first and last portions of the book strike just the right balance. However, the middle part of the novel takes a lighter romantic tone that left me craving something darker.
Oral traditions play an important role throughout Vampires of El Norte, lending a folk horror aspect to the novel. I especially enjoyed the author’s unique representation of vampires, which is genuinely terrifying at first and later adopts a more melancholic feel. Isabel Cañas delivers one of the most creative and compelling depictions of vampires that I have read in a long time.
Another highlight of Vampires of El Norte is its mid-nineteenth century setting during the Mexican-American war, which Isabel Cañas leverages to draw parallels between fictional creatures of horror and the real-life terrors of nationalistic aggression and war. Vampires of El Norte is an excellent example of how fantastic elements can help enhance our understanding of historical tragedies and their impact on both the individuals involved and society as a whole.
Vampires of El Norte is compulsively readable, blending the usually disparate genres of horror, romance, and historical fiction all in one compelling Weird Western story. I look forward to reading more from Isabel Cañas in the future.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.