Joe R. Lansdale is a name that should resonate with horror readers, as he’s won ten Bram Stoker awards—on top of an Edgar Award, a British Fantasy Award, and eleven World Fantasy Award nominations. Based on those accolades alone, you might be surprised to find that Lansdale’s writing tends to be hybrids, with as much western romance as horror, or mystery, or suspense—an adept practitioner of Southern Gothic and Weird Western. I’ve read at his short fiction collections and a couple of his novels, and can vouch for his quality. Dead in the West is one of his older stories; first written in 1980, it sat around unpublished before it was serialized in Eldritch Tales #10-13 in the mid-late ’80s, then revised as a novel in 2005.
Reverend Jebidiah Mercer is haunted by the sins of his past, finding solace in the bottom of a whiskey bottle and in his .36 Colt Navy revolver. The gunslinger-preacher finds himself riding into the dusty town of Mud Creek, in hopes of holding an old-time revival. But he’s come to town at the wrong time. The townsfolk, riled up by a racist deputy, just hung a travelling medicine man—a native shaman and his mulatto wife, a brutal speck of injustice that results the shaman placing a curse on Mud Creek. Within a few days, beneath the East Texas pines, the dead begin to rise, shambling into town to devour their family and neighbors. A demon has taken over the shaman, and his soulless body will see the townsfolk dead—and Mercer with them. Mercer came to town in hopes of finding his own salvation, instead finding temptation. For Mercer, the last of the Lord’s many tests is a final showdown between good and evil… Or perhaps a showdown between shades of gray, as Mercer is far from pure himself, and the shaman was innocent of all crimes save for the color of his skin.
It’s hard not to praise Lansdale, who I think is one of the best writers in the field today; he can write the most uproariously ribald humor, and a few pages later can break into powerful, heartbreaking emotion. He has a brilliant grasp of the written word: his prose is clean and unburdened yet still has a stylistic flair, with his killer use of dialogue and accents. Lansdale has a unique literary voice that’s distinctly Texan, evoking the dry South as his prose hits the reader at an emotional level. Most of the book’s flaws come from its origin. Dead in the West was first a 1986 serial, then Lansdale expanded it into a screenplay (that was never sold), and then in 2005 it was revised into a short novel. You can see the seams where the bones of the screenplay lay—there’s often a distinct flow from a scene-setting paragraph to a character description that leads into straight dialogue. Other than that, the writing is about on-par with Lansdale’s best work—I’ve never seen him write bad prose or phone in a story.
I’ll also note that this is a very specific kind of read for readers with a very specific taste—there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think a zombie western is awesome, and those who don’t. In the introduction, Lansdale pinpoints his influences—the horror-western B-movie Curse of the Undead, Jonah Hex comics, and the old Weird Tales pulp magazine. Dead in the West works as a homage to all three, a pure pulp narrative that would have fit well into his source fiction. There’s a surprising amount of characterization for Mercer, though the other characters, as expected, are cardboard. And the pacing very much follows the beats of a horror movie, from the growing unease and weird occurrences to the finale, a dramatic shootout at the old church. Don’t expect deep literature here; if you’re reading it, you’re reading it in hopes of zombie western action, which is what Lansdale delivers. That said, it’s well-done zombie western action, and is character-driven to boot.
In the hands of a lesser author, this could have been pure campy schmaltz, all cardboard caricature and tired Western tropes. But Lansdale has too much respect for his source material, and is too good a writer, to let that happen. Lansdale’s iconic black humor, brutal action, and distinct voice are all here, helping to raise the pulp experience into something more than pure schlock—a respectful homage to the Weird Western niche, character-driven pulp entertainment. Dead in the West is a solid little entry from a genre giant; it’s short, but provides a few nights worth of entertainment, and is a direct lead-in to the Deadman’s Road collection with more Mercer stories.
Title: Dead in the West
Author: Joe R. Lansdale
Publisher: Gere Donovan Press
Release Date: 2011
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $6.99
ISBN/ASIN: 0917053044 (oop) / B005V55PLS
First published: 1986