One of Joe R. Lansdale’s earliest works was the weird western novel Dead in the West, about a lapsed preacher who bumps into a town whose dead are cursed to rise. As I recall, it originated from three screenplays Joe Lansdale wrote in the ’80s: “Dead in the West,” “Deadman’s Road,” and “Hell’s Bounty,” tongue-in-cheek homages to the b-movies, comics, and pulp fiction of his youth. When the screenplays weren’t produced, Dead in the West was converted to a prose story. It was something of a cult hit for Lansdale fans, enough so that other weird west stories followed in its wake. And now here we are with Hell’s Bounty coming out as a short novel from Subterranean Press, co-written with his brother John. Lansdale devotees know what to expect. All others, prepare for a wild ride.
The western town of Falling Rock is a dangerous place, full of drunks, greedy miners, and fast guns, the fastest of which is the sadistic Quill. Enter a bounty hunter named Smith, a no-nonsense gunslinger with a penchant for dynamite. When Smith tangles with Quill, he ends up blowing himself up and landing smack-dab in Hell, where the devil has a certain deal for him. See, Quill’s gotten even meaner of late when he sold his soul to a demon who wants to summon the Old Ones, a group of Lovecraftians baddies that would roughly bring about the end of the world. Even Satan can’t handle that—bad for business, you see—and Smith gets the chance to go back and take Quill down for good.
Even armed with a demonic steed, an infinite supply of silver bullets, and more dynamite (longer fuses this time), Smith finds himself a bit out of his league: Quill has turned the local environs around Falling Rock into a wasteland, with the former populace now a rabid pack of blood-drinking ghouls. Quill himself is imbued with demonic power, turning him into a lightning-fast winged monster. But Smith straps on his Colts and rides into battle; on his side are a motley crew of Falling Rock survivors—saloon gal Payday, the town drunk/doctor, and a Molotov-wielding undertaker—as well as a card deck that can summon some of the meanest legends of the old west Hell can offer.
It’s a pretty exciting setup for the Lansdale brothers to tear into, and it packs in a lot of action for fans of their previous “weird west” adventures: a chase or two, several showdowns, an epic battle or two, with plenty of flowing blood and flying bullets. Joe Lansdale is a charismatic storyteller prone to genre-jumping, who always adds elements of his East Texas world into his crime and horror novels; he has a gift for fluid storytelling rich in vernacular and off-color humor. The humor’s a bit rough, and the cast is full of gritty, unsavory characters who (thankfully) either get their comeuppance or attempt to be better people, but overall it’s got a solid theme of death and redemption. Lansdale’s nod to history—the deck that summons infamous Wild West icons like Jesse James and Bill Hickock—is a nice touch, and brings to mind some of his other pulp mashups like Zeppelins West. And despite the craziness of some of these elements, when it’s all pulled together into a novel, it works.
Hell’s Bounty is unabashedly pulp, and it revels in it, falling into a smooth groove for its bloody finale after establishing a slick, energetic dynamic between Smith and his plucky comrades. It’s pure entertainment—screwball entertainment at that, as an odd mix of dime novels, comic books, and classic SF and horror. Its appeal may be a bit too niche, though after all this is coming from an Joe Lansdale, author of many a cult classic, so I doubt it will suffer from its genre-blending and unique creativity. At the end of the day, this 192-page short novel is another great read by Lansdale, a pulp throwback to spaghetti westerns and Hammer films and Jonah Hex comics, a concoction that’s sure to entertain those familiar with Joe’s inspirations. If you’re looking for a quirky read that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a fun action romp full of ghouls and gunslingers, look no further. Lansdale’s weird west is fun as Hell, and witty to boot.
Subterranean Press is still taking preorders for the signed limited edition, with an ebook version to follow, both releasing at the end of February.
Title: Hell’s Bounty
Editor: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
First Published Date: 29 Feb 2016
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via NetGalley)
MSRP: $40 signed LE hardcover / $5.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 1596067454 / B019DGNJAY