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Desert Oracle: Volume 1: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest

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The cult-y pocket-size field guide to the strange and intriguing secrets of the Mojave--its myths and legends, outcasts and oddballs, flora, fauna, and UFOs--becomes the definitive, oracular book of the desert

For the past five years, Desert Oracle has existed as a quasi-mythical, quarterly periodical available to the very determined only by subscription or at the odd desert-town gas station or the occasional hipster boutique, its canary-yellow-covered, forty-four-page issues handed from one curious desert zealot to the next, word spreading faster than the printers could keep up with. It became a radio show, a podcast, a live performance. Now, for the first time--and including both classic and new, never-before-seen revelations--Desert Oracle has been bound between two hard covers and is available to you.

Straight out of Joshua Tree, California, Desert Oracle is "The Voice of the Desert" a field guide to the strange tales, singing sand dunes, sagebrush trails, artists and aliens, authors and oddballs, ghost towns and modern legends, musicians and mystics, scorpions and saguaros, out there in the sand. Desert Oracle is your companion at a roadside diner, around a campfire, in your tent or cabin (or high-rise apartment or suburban living room) as the wind and the coyotes howl outside at night.

From journal entries of long-deceased adventurers to stray railroad ad copy, and musings on everything from desert flora, rumored cryptid sightings, and other paranormal phenomena, Ken Layne's Desert Oracle collects the weird and the wonderful of the American Southwest into a single, essential volume.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published December 1, 2020

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Ken Layne

3 books39 followers

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5 stars
265 (40%)
4 stars
247 (38%)
3 stars
113 (17%)
2 stars
19 (2%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 91 reviews
Profile Image for Patrick Lyke.
2 reviews1 follower
December 30, 2020
Weird things still happen in the world. Pulled from the weekly radio show and periodical, "the Voice of the Desert" fills this book with strange curiosities from the American southwest. Joshua Tree, Yucca Man, Area 51, Edward Abbey, Scientology, Marty Robbins, and everything in between make up the pages of this book. The world is still full of wonder and mystery. From Amboy to Zzyzx, and across the Great Mojave Wilderness, and even over to me in Illinois, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Profile Image for Contrary Reader.
155 reviews16 followers
June 22, 2021
I am now utterly curious about the desert- well the Mohave anyway. So many crazy and unexpected things have happened here. Linked in ways I hadn’t even comprehended. Yucca Man, Charlie Manson and his Cult, Aleister Crowley, L Ron Hubbard, U-FOs- Einsenhowers mysterious night and people just plain vanishing. You can send your outlaws and your mysterious rock paintings and your caves full of gold my way because I am here for them. And how could I forget Malinche/ La Llorona. Just the escape I needed- hot, arid and most definitely mysterious
Profile Image for Cooper Denny.
4 reviews
August 21, 2023
Not exactly “true tales” that the back cover describes. Some good short stories and then a lot of UFO sightings. Some stories really stretch to be related to the desert. Good for quick easy reading.
Profile Image for Annie.
514 reviews10 followers
May 16, 2021
Wide-ranging, engaging, and a little loopy. Just the right mix of wide-eyed wonder, critical intelligence, and a pervasive sense of danger.
Profile Image for Emily Duchon.
376 reviews25 followers
December 8, 2021
Found this gem in a dusty bookshelf at a Joshua Tree Air B and B. If you love Art Bell and the lonely, cryptic desert, this is for you. If the desert holds no appeal for you, skip it. I devoured it in one sitting.
Profile Image for Grace.
203 reviews5 followers
April 23, 2021
Desert Oracle is my favorite podcast, so I was predisposed to love this book.
Profile Image for Ditchface.
19 reviews1 follower
July 9, 2021
Read it at night, as late as you possibly can.
Profile Image for Trevor Litwin.
31 reviews18 followers
May 6, 2022
Fun collection of stories for those connected to the desert. Mixes the occult, nature, and pop culture together for an interesting read
Profile Image for Pamela.
893 reviews19 followers
November 22, 2020
The book starts out very wisely in letting you know how to survive the desert – bring lots of water, more than you think you need. If you get lost, or your car breaks down, stay by your car! There are brief mentions of those who didn’t make it out…

The next section is about the Yucca Man, and other very short tales of a creature seen in the desert called by many names, such as Bigfoot.

A little boy is lost. A scout leader failed in his job.

It goes from there….

These are little vignettes…tales of quirky people and tales of mysterious things that may be true, or not (ghost bighorn sheep).

Most of the entries read like snippets, not complete stories, and the writing tends to jump from one thought to another, then end abruptly. But don’t let that dissuade you from reading this. It adds to the sense, a layer to the oddness that are desert dwellers.

As a compilation, there tends to be a few places where something is repeated. For myself, too much on UFO’s and aliens when considering the whole work, would have liked more on history of place, or characters, those were the better entries. The snippets are of varying length with one section about cowboy music being very long. The writing isn’t polished either, you take what you can get when you’re out on the desert.

The book also contains photos and line drawings, which adds to the character of the book.

You don’t have to love the desert, but if you do this book will thrill you!

3.5 stars rounded up
I'll read a volume 2, if/when that comes out.

Thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for an uncorrected electronic advance review copy of this book.
Profile Image for Andrew.
24 reviews
January 2, 2021
“We are a fractured and confused people in this strange century, and most of what once connected us to a place - knowledge of the land and the animals, origins of the regional beasts and abominations, shared rituals and traditions - have been lost or taken away. We are strangers in our own land.

But we don’t have to be this way. With a bit of pleasant effort, we can know our local critters and plants, our legends and lore, and we can experience things more directly. ...

There are many good and noble reasons to protect the wilderness that remains, to be wise stewards of the only planet we’ve got at the moment. Keeping a wild, open landscape available for our encounters with the mysterious and the divine is as good a reason as the rest and maybe the best one of all.”
Profile Image for Greg Bem.
Author 6 books16 followers
May 11, 2022
Overall I was disappointed with this collection of miscellaneous "weird" stories from the Mojave and other American deserts. I found the structure of the book, from its shoddy introduction through, to be lacking, and many of the pieces themselves felt unfinished. I really had hoped for a great collection here, but maybe it's just my dissatisfaction with Layne's voice. I'll seek my drive for desert lit elsewhere.
60 reviews
February 16, 2021
This book is for those that have a natural curiosity and taste for the desert southwest of the U.S. Not only will you get a picture painted of the land that already seems mysterious, but the legends, myths, people, and connections to bigger stories are plentiful as sand in the Mojave Desert. If you did not have a curiosity about this area on our small blue marble, you would after reading this. It is a true potpourri of short and shorter tales/biographies/history of this land and is written by a professional storyteller, radio show host, and podcaster, Ken Layne. The art of his storytelling takes you on more turns than a sidewinder rattler.

I first began to pique my curiosity and longing of going to the desert southwest with Edward Abbey (also two short stories in here about him). This book has reinforced those urges. Every page feels like you are under the brightness of starlight on a cool desert night with a fire crackling and comfortable log to lean on, listening to a familiar voice (helps if you listen to the podcast/radio show), and not thinking about another damn thing that could be pulling you from the naturalness that we all seem to drift away from like some tired tumbleweed.

So envelop yourself in this book and hope there is a second volume, it goes fast. It isn't meant for academics, it is meant for genes long dormant in us that went to sleep with the invention of the television and the modern hyper rat race. If you can't wait, then I suggest and would recommend going to see the desert southwest until you can get your itch scratched. Wear a mask, if necessary. Hopefully, it wouldn't be. Get in touch with the side of yourself that not one group of people can wholly put a finger on, but they try.

"Philip K. Dick called it VALIS: Vast Active Living Intelligence System. Carl Jung named it the collective unconscious. We don't know what it is, and we don't know if it's divinely inspired, because we can't agree on what "divine" means. But it's real and it's there and if you're hungry for knowledge, the gates will be found open, eventually, maybe when you're looking for it least--every door in the house of wisdom, open to all those who take the trouble to try the lock, twist the doorknob. The Kingdom of Heaven, the Earthly Paradise, is here among you, and so many cannot see it."

Profile Image for Ben Marchman.
38 reviews1 follower
June 21, 2023
I picked this book up very appropriately in the general store in Pioneertown after a nice few hours exploring Joshua Tree for the first time. I used to hate the desert growing up in Southern California. It reminded me of long boring car rides away from my home to places like Vegas or Arizona with my parents. The desert was the obstacle to get through in order to get to the place you really wanted to be.

Only after leaving California for D.C. did I start to reconsider how I viewed the desert. Whenever I would fly to LA or Phoenix to visit my parents I would feel a sense of comfort seeing the landscape below change from green farmland to wide open desert.

This book gives me that same feeling and shows that there is still mystery in the universe after all. The book features a number of interesting reads about topics ranging from desert survival, indigenous desert cultures, ornithology, history, UFOs, cults, and everything in between. The backdrop remains primarily the Mojave Desert, but Layne weaves in stories from all parts of the Southwest. If you are like me trying to reacquaint yourself with the American Southwest or discovering it for the first time, this book is a fantastic read that delves into what makes these desert spaces so special.

In the end we are left with the sense that the desert is a place to preserve. Interesting not only for the landscape, but also for the humans that flock to it as a home and refuge. As Layne says, “There are many good and noble reasons to protect the wilderness that remains…Keeping a wild, open landscape available to our encounters with the mysterious and the divine is as good a reason as the rest and maybe the best one of all.”

252 reviews26 followers
April 15, 2021
What a fun read. Came across this while preparing for a week near Joshua Tree, then as expected, it was stocked at my Airbnb, and I had the pleasure to read it in a hammock while gazing at Joshua trees, quails, and jackrabbits foraging by me.

I was a bit turned off in the first 'chapter' / essay, about Yucca Man, which I hadn't heard of and had no interest in, but the rest of the book was full of fascinating history and lore so specific to the American southwestern deserts that it's hard not to be enamored. Some parts were a little bereft of context for me, but I'm not sure a person unfamiliar with the desert is the target audience here.

I loved Layne's writing style and frankness. He clearly sees inspiration in Art Bell, of Coast 2 Coast AM fame, and maybe some Hunter S Thompson in there too? In any case, the late night weirdness comes off perfectly and I learned a ton about the various aspects of desert culture that make the West truly the West.
227 reviews1 follower
May 27, 2022
This book is a a read around the campfire book for adults:). It has tales that are myth, true, and fantastical. These are from the author's periodical that was carried by several Indi style bookstores in 2015 and also from a radio show titled "Voice in the Desert" which can still be heard this day.

These little stories come mostly from the Great Mojave Desert and span from pioneer times to modern day.
I especially enjoyed the ones that touched on music and musicians from the 1930's and 1940's. I learned alot about music and music styles in general. "The Murder King of Western Swing", was a good one.
I also liked tales of petroglyphs, "Marty Robbins on the Cowboy Trail from Phoenix to El Paso".....
This is volume one so I'll be on the hunt for volume two. This might make a nice gift for someone who sits on the "porcelain throne" and needs some short stories to entertain them:)
412 reviews2 followers
December 12, 2020
If it’s your first time or one of many trips to the Mojave Desert, Desert Oracle can introduce you to some of the characters who were influenced by or tried to define the land in their own terms. These stories could not unfold in any other environment. The mixture of desert, plants, animal life, as well as folklore and legend, are brought forth in short chapters that could easily be told around a campsite. Each tale seems more like what you would hear just before closing time at a local bar after the tourists have cleared out…..now it’s just you and a few old-time stragglers. Some stories are familiar, some surprising, but all reveal that there is more to the area than the average tourist encounters. Recommended for desert trekkers.

Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to review this title.
Profile Image for Clare.
19 reviews31 followers
March 2, 2021
a slightly meandering collection of vignettes about the desert, covering everything from the phoenix lights to the only bird known to go into torpor (a form of hibernation). a lot of the chapters are drawn from layne's desert oracle radio show, and it's easy to imagine listening to these stories late at night while driving along an empty desert road. the structure of many of the chapters was a bit haphazard, often ending abruptly without any form of summary or conclusion, but this wasn't enough to detract from the overall experience. i often felt like i was sitting around a campfire listening to a mysterious stranger regale me with tales of cryptids, ghosts, and aliens as the vast desert night pressed at my back. i am deeply scared of the dark, though, so it was nice to experience that sensation from the comfort of my own home.
30 reviews17 followers
June 24, 2021
Short true stories of weird things that happened in the deserts of the American Southwest. Now, having said that, sometimes the "true" part is that many people claim to have seen Yucca Man or La Llorona or UFOs. However, such tales really only take up maybe a fifth of the overall book. Many fascinating, famous, and infamous figures came from or moved into the desert. Bizarre cults, peculiar animals, and strange geographical features appear in each chapter, usually 5-10 pages long.

Occasional mystic philosophical rants about the power & importance of the desert show up, but what is plain is that author Ken Layne loves this place and its people.

A nice trip to the desert that doesn't require sunscreen & extra water. See if the desert fever gets you!
Profile Image for Reeves.
19 reviews1 follower
June 15, 2023
Desert Oracle could best be described as a social history. A history of both true and untrue stories that have been told in the American Southwest. A history of ideas. A spiritual history of a place.

I’m exceedingly proud that a rather large part of American folklore revolves around cryptids and UFOs.

Ken Layne has done the world a favor by collecting these stories in one volume. Late in the book, he suggests:

“We are a fractured and confused people in this strange century, and most of what once connected us to a place—knowledge of the land and the animals, origins of the regional beasts and abominations, shared rituals and traditions—has been lost or taken away. We are strangers in our own land.”

And I can’t think of any better way to describe the current US zeitgeist.
Profile Image for Kris Evans.
21 reviews1 follower
June 29, 2023
Ken Layne knows the desert – the plants and the animals, the serenity and the danger, and the cast of characters who pass through or decide to live there. And he knows, if you are off the main highway, and your car breaks down – you’re in trouble. When he describes this, using the second person to drop ‘you’ directly into a run-out-of-water flat tire situation, you can start to feel the heat creeping and the utter remoteness of this part of the American south-west.

But make no mistake. He loves the place where he lives: ‘Desert is wilderness stripped bare,’ he says.
The book, collecting many of these stories, is interspersed with photography and illustration, reminding us the desert is – as Layne describes – both cruel and terrible as well as sublime.
14 reviews
January 30, 2021
Part desert solitaire (without the problematic bits), part Art Bell with UFO’s and Yucca Men, and part California/Mojave desert history, this is a book full of stories you’ll want to memorize and repeat around a campfire or cozy up with while safe at home.

As a frequent SoCal hiker/camper, I particularly enjoyed hearing the stories behind ghost towns and roadside monuments I’ve passed while driving out toward Joshua tree and Death Valley.

Overall, the book preserves the spooky, lonesome feel of the radio show, which plays, late at night, on a radio station near Joshua tree, but I think enjoyed the book even more than the show.
Profile Image for brandi gaspard.
32 reviews13 followers
July 1, 2021
picked this up in pioneertown, california on a whim and read it in less than a day while visiting the desert for the first time. i love the way ken layne tells these stories—he made me obsess over this barren yet lively environment. i want to be a desert rat now.

“there are many good and noble reasons to protect the wilderness that remains, to be wise stewards of the only planet we’ve got at the moment. keeping a wild, open landscape available for our encounters with the mysterious and the divine is as good a reason as the rest and mah e the best one of all.
come on out and give it a try. maybe you’ll see a UFO. maybe you’ll see something weirder.”
Profile Image for Snem.
840 reviews8 followers
May 24, 2023
This captures the mystique of the American desert quite well. Just the right amount of oddball for my taste. Quirky, random and includes a wide variety of essays. It was nice to escape to the mysterious desert for a while.

A bit disjointed structurally and sometimes hard to follow. Some of the pieces felt incomplete. Not all of it kept my interest and my mind wandered.

If you have ever listened and enjoyed Art Bell or Welcome to Night Vale, if you like strange desert weirdo stories, then this is for you. It appeals to a particular reader.
Profile Image for Lena.
6 reviews
July 22, 2023
I really enjoyed this collection of short (true and folk) stories about the desert in Southwest USA. The narrator read like a Rod Serling type or local radio host quietly telling stories of the weird and bizarre.

Some stories were more interesting than others but I learned so much about the history of Joshua Tree, the Mojave desert, Area 51 and Sonora. Weird characters with deep connections to these regions I didnt know about like Aleister Crowley and Charles Manson.

Great read. Can’t wait Volume 2
Profile Image for lucy.
38 reviews
January 27, 2022
fantastic book! if you love the desert oracle podcast, you’ll love the book even more. delivers and expands on the podcast’s concept, with short essays on desert culture broken up by longer pieces exploring bigger topics. ken has a way of connecting small events to big ideas that surprises me every time. if you’re into naturalism, desert living, aliens, occultists, and/or other weird and wonderful things found in the american southwest, you should read this book.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 91 reviews

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