Before Deadman’s Road, I’d only been acquainted with Reverend Jebidiah Mercer via one of the short stories contained within this volume, but the character stuck out as one with a great deal of potential for additional adventures. I’m pleased to discover that I was not wrong. Joe R. Lansdale populates his fictional version of the American Wild West with monsters, both human and inhuman, familiar and strange. All of this is filtered through the sardonic and rueful Reverend Mercer as he struggles to fulfill God’s will, a capricious and cruel thing. As he faces off against zombies, werewolves, goblins, and other monstrous entities, Mercer is joined by assorted men and women who frequently don’t survive the encounters with the same sort of adroitness the Reverend displays. Short-lived as his companions may be, they provide ample fodder for Mercer’s wit and derision in some of the most entertaining dialogue Lansdale’s written outside of the Hap and Leonard novels. The narration of the audiobook provided by Stefan Rudnicki perfectly suited the gruff and acerbic Reverend, as well as the other characters filling these tales. This was only my second encounter with Rudnicki as a narrator, and he was no less impressive this time around.
When Hank Flynn stumbles onto the site of what will soon become Protection, Kansas, it’s immediately apparent to Wallace Bixby and his daughter, Josie, that there’s something special about this grievously injured man. Nursed back to health, Hank settles in and becomes a member of the growing community as long as God will allow it. Protection is aptly named, with Hank Flynn around, because there’s no threat that Hank won’t combat to keep the people of his home safe, whether marauder, drought, or worse. It soon becomes clear that “worse” is going to be the case more often than not, as strange and evil forces align to seek out Hank where he’s found peace. But Hank is a man of many skills and a haunted past that propels him forward as he does God’s will wherever he’s called to do so. The malevolent beings that hunt him down would be wise to avoid Protection, Kansas because Hank is no stranger to raising Cain when the situation merits it. Candace Nola has written a spiritual horror stand-in for Little House On the Prairie, punctuating the prosaic struggles of frontier life with body and soul battles against the denizens of Hell. It’s a little bit Kung Fu (the 1970s television series) and a little bit Supernatural all rolled into one captivating package. The narration provided by Jamison Walker is dramatic, and the voices of the assorted characters are distinctly their own. I’d never encountered his narration with previous audiobook titles, so I’m not sure if this title is representative of his other work, but it was suitable for this book.
The Magnificent Nine confirms the placement of these Firefly novels–or at least this particular installment–as falling between Objects In Space and the Serenity motion picture. The previous book hadn’t made any specific mention of the events in that episode and thus could have fallen before or after that final episode of the tragically short-lived series. The crew of Serenity is floating adrift, between jobs and looking for work to keep themselves afloat when a message arrives from an old friend of Jayne’s. There’s trouble on the distant, dry–almost desert–world of Thetis. Jayne’s former lover, Temperance, is desperate to find help for her small village. A cruel, savage bandit going by the name of Elias Vandal threatens the survival of all residents of Thetis who won’t bow to his reign or join his cultish band of raiders and criminals. Though there’s no money in the job, it’s the right thing to do, and the crew of Serenity naturally makes their way to Thetis. This group of nine mismatched compatriots is hardly the collection of soldiers or heroes Temperance was expecting, but they might be precisely the heroes the planet needs. While the previous installment, Big Damn Heroes, provided us with a fair bit of additional backstory for Captain Malcolm Reynolds, this book supplements what we know of Jayne Cobb before his time with the crew of Serenity. It’s a satisfying story that could have made for a pretty fantastic episode or two of the series. The narration from James Anderson Foster is just as good as it was for the previous book–and hopefully will be for the remaining handful of Firefly supplemental novels.
Charles R. Bernard has crafted an immersive piece of historical fiction with A Baptism for the Dead. Spanning the decades between the 1840s and the 1870s, we experience snapshots of the expansive fields of unsettled Nebraska on the approach to the South Pass through the Continental Divide in what would become Wyoming, raging blizzards in Northern Michigan, and the early years of Salt Lake City…and those snapshots feel three dimensional. Throughout the story, we occasionally follow Left Hand, an indigenous woman who has the unfortunate path in life of hunting monsters. The introduction to her character is a fascinating glimpse of a forest haunted by ghosts and a cavern of sickness and monstrous residents. The bulk of the story begins as we witness Leonidas Pyburn and his two sons–following the fateful path previously taken by the Donner-Reed Party–headed West to embrace the call of Manifest Destiny in the form of the emerging gold rush in California. Encountering a frantic, haunted sexton along the way, their own journey takes a turn not altogether better than that experienced by the previously mentioned Donner Party. The survivors of that grisly, horrific encounter go drastically separate directions, both in life and in a cartographic sense. While Leonidas continues West to seek fortune and power, his son determines that his fate awaits him to the North, with the Mormons who passed through the region previously. As secrets and magic bring the father and son together again, two decades later, we learn that there are more than carrion-eating ghouls to be afraid of in this vision of the American West. Bernard succeeds in blending occultism, conventional spirituality, social commentary, history, and family drama into a captivating novel that contains more than enough gore and Western aesthetic to appeal to fans of the Splatter Westerns being published by Death’s Head Press.
My maternal grandfather was a big fan of Louis L’Amour and he had a massive assortment of paperback westerns when I was growing up. I developed a deep appreciation for those stories and others, as well as western movies and television as a whole. The Night Silver River Run Red is absolutely not one of those westerns. Christine Morgan nails the language, the descriptions, and the tone of authentic western authors…but that is where the similarities end. It starts off like a tale that could have been a Halloween-themed Laura Ingalls Wilder story from her Little House series. Kids in a rapidly depopulating town sneak out together at night to try and catch a glimpse of carnival attractions their puritanical parents oppose. The only element that wouldn’t fit is the presence of a religious cult a short distance outside of town, but I didn’t say it was a perfect comparison. It doesn’t feel like one of those stories for long anyhow. The violence erupts and any thought that this could have been a western story you might have read while growing up is dispelled quite rapidly and that sense of familiarity never returns…plus, there is a uniquely psychotic rapist named Horsecock in the book, so there’s that. I can only hope the other Splatter Westerns published by Death’s Head Press are this good…because Christine Morgan expertly weaves her own brand of extreme horror and visceral violence into an almost perfect replica of the pulp westerns a lot of us know quite well. This is the fourth of the books, but it had to be the first I read, just because of this particular author.
If you are a fan of both horror and western literature, I highly recommend checking out the whole series of Splatter Westerns released by Death’s Head Press. There are currently eight installments to fulfill your filthiest, most bloodthirsty desires.