Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dead in the West by Joe R. Lansdale

I didn't realize that I've actually read a few short stories by Mr. Lansdale, but it turns out he's done a little comics adaptation work that I read way back in high school. Even if I had remembered, I wouldn't have grabbed this one based on that. There was no need.

After all, when a book claims to be "A Zombie Western" there's really nothing else you need to know. You grab the book and run with it. (Well, actually, you patiently check it out from the library. Running away with the book is not a smart way to be allowed to take out other library books.)

Dead in the West is basically a short story that's been expanded out into a novella. The pre-story notes indicate it was a tribute to the pulps, and that's very easy to see, in the sectioning of the story into "i, ii, iii, and so on, even though such a short work really doesn't require quite so much partitioning. The writing also has a strong pulp feel, with characters being told what they think by the omniscient narrator and no one falling too far from the stock character tree.

If that sounds horrific to you, just go ahead and get out of Dodge on the next stage coach, because even if you like zombies, you aren't going to like this story. It's written in a throwback style that appeals to me (I have decided to call this "pre writing workshop style" for lack of a better term.) because it does not feel quite as polished as a "new" story would. But if you like your fiction written to be "perfect" then you aren't going to dig this at all.

Short version: Like Stephen King? You're in.

Mud Creek is your typical pulp western town, with a cast of drunks and n'er do wells who try to frisk anyone who blows through their town. When the Reverend Jeb Mercer walks in, faith as tattered as his bible, he plans on doing some preaching, getting some cash, and getting out of town fast. But there's an ill wind brewing, and the Lord seeks out someone who can help stem the tide of (perhaps deserved, as the reader soon learns) Evil which threatens to use the living dead to exact a fearful revenge.

The Reverend, whether he likes it or not, is nominated to be the Pistol of God. But he can't work alone. As strange doings abound, he meets with a well-read doctor and his lovely daughter, along with a mistreated boy with a desire to learn. Can they fight the putrid flesh of the townsfolk out for human steak tartar?

I'm sure you know the answer, but I'm not telling anyway.

Nothing about this story is earth shattering. It's a tale of good and evil, a tarnished hero who makes good when the time is right, flanked by the only good people in a town gone bad. If you ever read any westerns, and I read/listened to quite a few growing up, you'll know the basic concept.

The fun, however, is in how Lansdale writes out the details. Even though you know what's going to happen--the church is a former weapons supply depot, for instance, with obvious results--the writer finds a way to make the story entertaining for those looking for a 150 page romp that can be finished in one day. The blending of elements of other horror stories works well, and Lansdale even manages to make it so you don't hate the villain so that the troublesome side of the pulps (blatent racism at times) is mitigated. I was particularly impressed that while he did not shy away from the bluntness of pulp characters, he also found a way to keep it from hurting a story for a modern audience.

If there's one thing I'd change, it's that the book stoops to the crude a little too much. I could have done without some of the dialog and imagry, but again, your best guide here is King, who also does that too much for my taste at times. Must be in the "How to Write Good Horror Handbook" or something. There's also just a bit of "girl in the refridgerator" going on (that's shorthand for gratuitous violence towards women in comics speak) here and there, but I don't think it's enough to dis-recommend this otherwise great read.

Dead in the West is not out to win any literary awards, and that's fine with me. It's a tribute to the days when writers just found good variations on a theme and used their talent to bring their own personal style to make the story shine. Lansdale does that here, and gives us a western take on the undead. This book, though set in the darkest night, is a nifty ray of sunlight that can be appreciated in about as long as the sun shines on a winter afternoon. Definitely worth the read.

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