Because of the themes of his fiction, he is often seen as the last of the novelists of the Mexican Revolution. He had enormous impact on those Latin American authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, who practiced what has come to be known as magic realism, but he did not theorize about it.
Rulfo was an avowed follower of the American novelist William Faulkner.
As a child growing up in the rural countryside, Rulfo witnessed the latter part (1926–29) of the violent Cristero rebellion in western Mexico. His family of prosperous landowners lost a considerable fortune. When they moved to Mexico City, Rulfo worked for a rubber company and as a film scriptwriter. Many of the short stories that were later published in El llano en llamas (1953; The Burning Plain) first appeared in the review Pan; they depict the violence of the rural environment and the moral stagnation of its people.
In them Rulfo first used narrative techniques that later would be incorporated into the Latin American new novel, such as the use of stream of consciousness, flashbacks, and shifting points of view. Pedro Páramo (1955) examines the physical and moral disintegration of a laconic cacique (boss) and is set in a mythical hell on earth inhabited by the dead, who are haunted by their past transgressions.