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Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Joe R. Lansdale’s Dead in the West

These days, the idea of a zombie apocalypse playing out is kind of old hat. Likewise, the idea of a zombie apocalypse playing out in a different time or location than Pittsburgh or New York City in contemporary times—movies and television alone have transported audiences to zombie apocalypses in Korea (2016’s Train to Busan), sword and sorcery Maori in New Zealand (e.g., The Dead Lands series, which kicked off in 2020), to shady clinics in eastern Europe (2019’s Yummy) among a couple of examples. Zombies are big business in films and fiction, these days. However, when it first hit the pages of Eldritch Tales magazine as a multi-part serial starting back in 1984, I suspect Joe R. Lansdale’s weird western zombie tale met with no small amount of glee or surprise. I know I was shocked when a few years later, I encountered a little book of zombie stories called Book of the Dead (which included a piece from Lansdale, hisownself) that took place in a Romero zombie universe—it was a book that spoke to me circa 1991. It was a book I was glad to discover tucked away on a shelf in the mall’s B. Dalton’s Bookseller shop, and it introduced me to Lansdale’s fiction. I sought out as much as possible, still do, and it led me (eventually) to the granddaddy of zombie weird western horror, Dead in the West. I did not read the original serial. Instead, I got a cheap paperback copy from Space & Time. In 2005, I upgraded to the hardcover from Night Shade Books and then five or so years later upgraded again to the collected adventures of The Reverend, Deadman’s Road. That collection originally came out from Subterranean Press, but it’s got an eBook and paperback life of its own, these days (thanks to Tachyon Publications). Such a little story has had quite a nice shelf life in various editions. This does not include the screenplay version that appeared in the Screamplays paperback from last century (which saw reprint in a Cemetery Dance limited edition as well as a Subterranean Press collection of Joe R. Lansdale’s own weird western scripts, Shadows West) Other genre fare has not fared half as well as that little book.

In a world that’s stuffed to the gills with zombie fiction and flicks as well as weird western material, is tracking down Joe R. Lansdale’s early effort worth the trouble and give it a read? Well, the answer is a tad complex, a little complicated. It’s a hell of a read, but it’s also a rough go from the content side. A western served con carne (aka with meat) and more than a little young, brash attitude. Today, we kick off a month-long glance at that strange sister to that more or less respectable subgenre, steampunk: the weird western might not be as mannered, but it’s a serving ground for some intriguing storytelling.

Dead in the West is a slender book, not even 150 pages in my edition of Deadman’s Road, but don’t confuse that with a slight book. Lansdale wrote this early in his career, when he was a young, hungry writer, and the book paces itself like a cold, steel freight train ripping across the landscape. It might not always be fast, but it’s relentless.

The action kicks off with a stagecoach heading toward the small town of Mud Creek in East Texas. The three passengers include a gambler, a prostitute, and a sleeping girl. As well, there’s the driver (Bill Nolan, a wink toward the California School of dark fantasists from back in the day) and his shotgunner, Jake Wilson. When they stop the coach for an emergency bathroom break for Jake, they are just outside the town limits and soon discover they’ve unwittingly landed themselves in a heap of trouble. A mysterious spider creature that maybe transforms into a human being is crawling among those trees. They might be written out of the story as possible protagonists at this point, but the tale is not quite done with them yet. Then, the plot shifts gears to Reverend Jebidiah Mercer, riding across the landscape toward Mud Creek as well. He’s the hero of the story, but he’s not a white hat sort of guy, as his appearance reveals:

He had come down out of the high country: a long, lean preacher man covered in dust, riding a buckskin mare with an abscessed back, a wound made by hard riding and saddle friction against dust and hide.

Both man and horse looked ready to drop.

The man was dressed in black from boots to hat, save for a dusty white shirt and the silver glitter of a modified .36 Colt Navy revolver in his black sash waist band. His face, like many men of the Word, was hard and stern. But there was something definably unGodlike about the man. He had the cool, blue eyes of a cold killer—the eyes of a man who had seen the elephant and seen it well.

Deadman’s Road, 25

He’s a man haunted by past indiscretions, killings, and a strange relationship with the Lord he serves. He comes to Mud Creek hoping to kick off a tent service that he might preach at. The local priest takes some Umbridge with this, but before long the town is knee deep in hellish mystery and horror, so Jeb’s coming might well be preordained. In fact, he has been having nightmares about a horrible spider.

That spider, as the prologue shows us, is anything but a simple arachnid. It’s a monster, tied to a rather terrible incident in Mud Creek’s recent history, a terrible crime visited upon a traveling medicine making Indian and his mixed-race bride. The white folks used these travelers services until they did not seem to work and then exacted a brutal frontier justice judgment upon them. Now, retribution is making its way back to Mud Creek and everyone there is going to pay.

Dead in the West starts out like a brutal dark fantasy, delves into mystery-western territory as the Rev and his ragtag band of companions (a local doctor, the doc’s charming daughter, a boy looking for a healthy father figure) try to figure out what’s going on, and then ends up square in George A. Romero-esque cinematic siege territory, as a terrible intelligence besieges the town with its own living dead.

Lansdale wears his influences on his sleeve, but he does not write a pastiche story. There’s a scene where a living dead granddaughter visits her kin that speaks to an infamous cannibalism scene in Romero’s first zombie picture, but it reads as a tip of the hat instead of some kind of blatant rip off. The key here is Lansdale’s dynamic writing; he invokes similar thematic touches without relying on the actual beats of that scene. In general, Dead in the West is not a wall-to-wall horror-action yarn, it’s a piece about some well-drawn (though not always sympathetic) characters stuck in a rotten situation that starts out bad in normal ways (Rev finds himself in a place of doubt, the boy Jake is being physically abused by his dad “for his own good,” the town is filled with horrible folks) but soon enough dives into less natural rotten situations.

I’ve written before about Lansdale’s knack for writing humor, heart, and action sequences. Although his craft has developed with each book, the talent shines through from the beginning in these early works as well.

In a wonderfully subversive vein, Lansdale’s book is not pro-God, despite Reverend Mercer’s occupation, talk of heaven and hell, and the presence of the supernatural. Instead, it is the power of faith itself that makes holy symbols and ground effective repellants to evil. As Doc explains to the besieged defenders about their Adversary:

“[…] The demon controls his body and keeps him alive, no matter how worse for wear he becomes. The only way to stop him is with sunlight or holy objects. But the person behind those objects must believe in them. If his faith falters, they’ll fail.”

Deadman’s Road, 130

The power is not dispensed from on high, it comes from inside people themselves through their own manifestations of higher ideals. A subtle difference, but a vital one. In a less gritty work, I suspect someone’s faith in the local widow’s supernaturally tasty meat pies might have made them vital weapons against these monsters.

The book is a quick read, and I suspect it was a quick write as well. Lansdale loves his similes, and while they are often spot on a couple are a bit of a stretch (there’s one comparing the sun to an infant’s head, which is cute but not terribly convincing). Looking at the thing from a sentence to sentence level is perhaps less interesting that looking at the broad strokes. This was written in the classic pulp fiction style, so colorful language and simple syntax abounds. Is this to the book’s detriment? Perhaps for readers looking for complex writing styles. However, as an example of breezy but nasty horror fiction there are few writers who match Lansdale’s ease with scatological humor, bloody violence, and humanist philosophy.

For a story that first appeared in serial format some thirty-five years ago (long before the resurgence in zombie popularity), it carries its load pretty well. Sure, it has lost a bit of its luster due to the proliferation of zombie related materials I mentioned before. That said, it has more than a little life left in its pages, and that is due to the equally poetic and crass voice of the author. Take this little tidbit as an example, a dialogue between the Reverend and the owner of the hotel where he’s staying, after Jeb discharges his pistol in his room:

The Reverend got up, opened the door as he stuck the Navy back in his sash. “You okay, Reverend?” Montclaire said.

The Reverend leaned against the doorjamb. “A spider. The devil’s own creatures. I cannot abide them.”

“A spider? You shot a spider?”

The Reverend nodded.

Montclaire moved closer to the doorway for a look inside. The sun was lancing through a slit in the curtains, catching the drifting plaster in its rays. It looked like a fine snow. He looked at the hole in the ceiling. There were legs around the hole. The bullet had punched the big spider dead center and the legs had stuck to the ceiling, glued there by spider juice.

Before pulling his head out, Montclaire saw the whisky bottle setting beside the bed.

“You got him, I hope,” Montclaire said.

“Right between the eyes.”

“Now look here. Preacher or not, I can’t have people shooting up my hotel. I run a nice respectable place here …”

“It’s an outhouse and you know it. You should pay me to stay here.”

Montclaire opened his mouth, but something on the Reverend’s face held him.

The Reverend reached into his pocket and took out a fist full of bills. “Here’s a dollar for the spider. Five for the hole.”

“Well sir, I don’t know ….”

“That’s a respectable spider bounty, Montclaire, and it’s my head beneath the hole if it rains.”

Deadman’s Road, 30

Right there, you have a solid example of the author’s talent for blending earthy humor with an unflinching eye for the way tough guys talk to one another. His dialogue in this book has a cadence of yesteryear but remains thoroughly readable and enjoyable. His people are crass and uncouth when they want to be, some characters affect airs they shed in the face of trouble, and a few quieter ones manage to keep their dignity even in the face of horror.

As we might expect from Lansdale’s fiction, racial inequalities in these here United States serve as the catalyst for this particular yarn’s threat. That the story is a historical does not erase its relevance. Lansdale has never been shy about tackling racial issues, from his early fiction right on up to novels that saw release within the last couple years (e.g., More Better Deals). It makes for uncomfortable reading sometimes, but I’ll be damned if I don’t admit to enjoying his works even when they make me squirm. Maybe especially so.

Dead in the West is one of those books that doesn’t go out of print for long, and there’s a terrific reason for that. It’s an early work from a master of mojo storytelling, a treasure of weird western fiction that grapples with all kinds of real-world evils through the lens of a supernatural horror actioner yarn. A little rough around the edges, perhaps, but nevertheless it is a solid tale well-told.

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As I mentioned above, Dead in the West has been made available in a variety of editions over the years. It’s had a standalone eBook edition. Easiest one to grab these days is in the Deadman’s Road collection, which is available in paperback and audiobook editions.

Tomorrow, we kick off a look at a more recent line of books tackling weird west themes, the Splatter Westerns from Death’s Head Press. Since we don’t do things nice and neat around here, we start not with book one, but the seventh book in that series: Kenzie Jennings’ Red Station. It is available in eBook and paperback editions.

Monday, we take a gander at The Pale Door (2020), a recent weird western flick that Lansdale presents (aka serves as Executive Producer for). It is available in DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming editions.

Next week, we shift gears a bit to visit Lansdale’s spooky weird western novel, The Magic Wagon. That work is available in eBook, paperback, and audio editions.

WORKS CITED

Lansdale, Joe R. Deadman’s Road. Subterranean Press: 2010.

“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition: Joe R. Lansdale’s Dead in the West” is copyright 2021 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the Subterranean Press hardcover edition of Deadman’s Road, released 2010. Additional cover images taken from the Night Shade Books hardcover edition of Dead in the West, released in 2005 as well as the more recent Tachyon Publications edition of Deadman’s Road, released 2013.

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This book is also likely available from your local library. I know because I listened to the audio edition as a refresher with the Libby App (used by libraries here in Harris County, Texas).