Can you imagine a weird western meets coming of age story, finding a young man riding around in a traveling medicine show with a racist gunslinger, a Black driver, a wrestling ape called Rot Toe, and the preserved cadaver of Wild Bill Hickock? Well, that is the spine of Joe R. Lansdale’s The Magic Wagon. The titular medicine show rolls across the terrain of East Texas, winding up in the same small town of Mud Creek where so much action, violence, and devastation wrecked things in Dead in the West. However, any residents of that town who might’ve been privy to those events are never seen. Is this the same Mud Creek, a rebuilt joint, another doomed burg under the same name? I suspect it is the same, just a few years removed.
Our first view of the town is a doozy:
Soon as I touched feet to the ground, I knew things were going to happen in this town. It was like a ripple had run under my feet, or maybe more like it feels when there’s a real bad storm in the air and the lightning is stitching so thick it makes your hair stand up and your skin feel prickly. Mud Creek felt like a town with a soul, and a bad old soul at that.
It wasn’t nothing to look at neither, there in that early morning greyness. It looked like someone had taken a handful of old ugly buildings and tossed them like dice onto a dirty hunk of ground and surrounded them with the biggest, darkest East Texas pines you’d ever seen. Most towns you come to the buildings are on either side of the main street, but here the street just sort of wandered down between the buildings as best it could. Like where wasn’t no plan or nothing. Just build as you will, do as you will.The Magic Wagon, 14-15
The Magic Wagon is no retread of the same material or even similar material as Dead in the West. It’s a raunchy little yarn with plenty of heart. And while there’s little to no bloody violence on the page, it is certainly not a novel for the faint of heart. Its violence is much more verbal and psychological, emotional. The n-word also gets thrown around a lot. So, trigger warning on that front.
However, the book is also one of Lansdale’s early gems, a down and dirty precursor to the sorts of stories he would later write such as The Bottoms, A Thin, Dark Line, All the Earth, Thrown Up to the Sky, or Fender Lizards. These are stories about young folks who get an eyeful of the uglier side of the way the world works. However, the darkness does not necessarily swallow them whole and make them ugly, rotten people.
The Magic Wagon is a powerful meditation on the kinds of evils that fester in the human heart, especially in the hearts of men who don’t really accept who they are deep down. That is one of the more provocative ideas at play in this book, the faces people show the world and the ones they hide, the ones they keep only for themselves.
The weirder elements are subtle in this work. There’s a storm that follows the wagon, you see. Something the fine folks of the medicine show hope to always stay ahead of, knowing there will come a time when they can no longer do that. Does that storm really have something to do with cursed wood? Is it all a tall tale, or an extension of psychological issues on the part of the narrator? Is it simple embellishment? Hard to say for sure. I tend to side on believing in the weird for its own sake. It lends the story a mythic quality that only improves the already impressive material.
Take for example, the wagon’s first arrival in Mud Creek. Soon after Buster’s first impression, we get a sense of the town’s otherworldliness, a mythic spookiness. It is voiced by Old Albert, the wisest of the companions, but Buster wants us to believe it is not just superstitious impressions:
“I tell you, Little Buster, that town’s full of all manner of bad spirits. It’s done gone and had it a real bad life, and it ain’t going to get no better.”
Now I really had the shakes. Albert claimed he could feel and sometimes see spirits. He believes all things had souls, even rocks and trees. Sounded like some of the stuff I’d heard Indians say, only Albert got his beliefs from his grandfather and great-grandfather, both of which had been slaves, and the great-grandfather had been direct from Africa. He’d told Albert all manner of stories about over there. About spirits and goblins, and little short folks that lived in the woods and had poisoned arrows and such. Some of it sounded pretty wild to me, especially that stuff about the short folks, but Albert believed it all. And from the things that had happened to me since I’d teamed up with the Magic Wagon, I was beginning to believe most anything.
And I could feel the bad in Mud Creek, too, though it could have been Albert’s tall tales rubbing off on me. But there was the stone cold fact that I’d felt that badness before Albert even stepped down off the wagon.The Magic Wagon, 15
At the time of the book, Buster is seventeen. He picks up his adventures a few years after a bad year losing his parents and then the farm. We catch up pretty fast, as he opens the book with a fateful and knee slapping encounter between the trick shooter/medicine mixer Billy Bob Daniels and an unsatisfied customer.
The medicine these folks mix and sell is little more than colored whiskey. However, they swear it will cure everything from flaccid dicks to piles. And one sucker who bought the stuff learned firsthand how much of a lie it was:
The fella who bought the stuff was a teetotaler and it made him drunk enough to hit his wife some and have a bellyache. And later when he passed out on the bed drunk, she sewed him up in the bedsheets, got herself a broom, and whaled tar out of him till he was bruised enough to pass for a speckled pup.
When his wife finally did let him out from beneath the sheets he had sobered considerable, and he got to figuring on what he’d done and the fact that he had the piles bad as ever, and he came looking for Billy Bob.The Magic Wagon, 9-10
The companions escape the situation, but that encounter defines each of the characters for us as clearly as possible. Billy Bob is a violent sort. Old Albert has the ability to talk his white partner out of bad decisions for some reason unknown to us at the start but coming clear later on. Buster is easily overwhelmed but a good observer. In time, they will end up in Mud Creek. This is assured in the delightful opening:
Wild Bill Hickock, some years after he was dead, came to Mud Creek for a shoot-out of sorts.
I was there. Let me tell you about it.The Magic Wagon, 9
It is an opening that blends would make James Cain nod in approval. It’s got a western’s touch to the dialogue, but the book is a provocative read even for readers who aren’t fans of that particular genre. It’s got mystery, a hint of weirdness, and a confessional quality that are all invitations to read on. Throughout the whole book, Lansdale’s voice is natural, his prose clean (especially true even when the subject matter is at its crassest), and there’s a simple honesty to Buster’s tale that makes him easy to get along with. It’s important to have that here, especially since the narrative goes some dark places, indeed.
Lansdale’s novel is more than Buster’s story, however. It is overflowing with stories. In addition to the main plotline, Buster gives us his backstory, his adoptive father figure Albert gives his own back story, we are privy to both the public and private versions of trick shooter and medicine mixer Billy Bob Daniels, we get the story of the cadaver in the box, as well as the box itself. Each of the novel’s seven or so chapters moves the main plot forward but also rounds out our understanding of the characters by sharing the stories they tell themselves and the ones they tell others. Like any good Texan or cowboy storyteller, I suppose Buster never lies to us. Instead, he improves on the truth by adding a dash of humor here, a tallness to the tales there, and that spookiness. Can we trust any of these people further than we could throw them? Maybe so, or maybe no. However, there’s some honesty to be found even in a profligate liar like Billy Bob’s yarning.
The different voices for the characters is one of the big selling points of Lansdale’s fiction. He has a knack for the way some folks talk, as well as a narrative voice that pulls us along, leading us both toward tales of courage and darkness, kindness and cruelty. You never quite know what you’re going to get with a Lansdale novel other than a good story well told. These days, he’s almost a genre all to himself. However, his earlier works show a potent craftsman learning his trade, telling fun stories, and building his skill sets. The Magic Wagon is a powerful though brief novel.
The Magic Wagon is not an easy read, these days, particularly for folks sensitive to certain racial epithets and vulgarities. However, as rough as the prose can be, the novel is also a heartfelt and honest appraisal of these characters. Lansdale has always taken a warts and all approach to the business of living, it makes his thrillers and mysteries edgier, it makes his westerns more earthy, and it lends his horror stories plenty of grit. Here, as with his later kinda-sorta-YA material, the approach lends the story a foundation in time, place, and character, which even the materialization of eerier elements cannot dispel. It’s a solid story, and poetic in its writing style.
Next Saturday, we continue our survey of Joe R. Lansdale’s weird westerns with a look at the four Reverend Mercer stories that accompanied Dead in the West in the 2010 release, Deadman’s Road. That volume is available in paperback and audiobook editions.
Lansdale, Joe R. The Magic Wagon. Doubleday & Company: 1986.
“Full of All Manner of Bad Spirits: Joe R. Lansdale’s The Magic Wagon” is copyright © 2021 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the Subterranean Press hardcover edition, released 2001.
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