Monday, June 28, 2010

Guest Reviews: The Wicked West Vol. 1 & Dead Man's Hand

Guest columnist and frequent Emporium reader Ashe Armstrong reviews a couple of pistol packin' Weird Westerns (That Ive been too lazy to get to myself) so listen up ya' all!

Long days and pleasant nights. The infernal Mr. Adams has been kind enough to allow me to bring to you some weird west reviews. Specifically, The Wicked West vol.1 by Todd Livingston and Robert Tinnell and Dead Man's Hand: Five Tales of the Weird West by Nancy A. Collins. The former is a collection of pretty pages narrating a tale, and the latter, if you couldn't figure it out, is an anthology of five stories. I'll try to leave out spoilers as best I can, so no worries there, folks. Now, without further ado, let's get this shindig started.

The Wicked West vol 1. is an interesting take on vampires in the west. The story is told in a sort of dual narrative, flashback/flashforward setup. The main character's exploits are remembered by a child that witnessed them, while watching a movie in a theater with his grandson that reminds him of the events. These parts serve two purposes well. The first is to give a comparison of how bad the events actually were. The movie they watch is a typical, good guys in white, bad guys in black fair that ends happily ever after. The truth is horrible and unpleasant. The second is to contrast the vampires. In the film, the vampire is Lugosi-esque. In the story, well...teeth, teeth and teeth. The story is a solid one. Mysterious stranger, small town, big trouble. Tried and true. Outside of the delivery and the main character knowing how to handle things, there's not much here that hasn't been seen before. You can definitely see the influence of Robert E. Howard's short, “The Horror from the Mound”. And that is a good thing.

Now for the art. It's good. The lines are excellent, great detail, realistic but with that nice hint of cartoon/comicness. The colors though...well, sometimes they're a bit heavy. Like maybe Neil Vokes , the artist for the book, had to color in photoshop and still wasn't use to doing so. That's not to say it looks amateurish, just heavy. It works though and I admit that I'm probably being a little harder on it than I should but I'm kind of a picky bastard, so you'll have to forgive me.

And added bonus to the book is the short story in the back. Along with some sketches, there's a short story about a different character in a similar situation that was actually pretty damn good. And clever to boot. It involves the character and a young boy hunting a pack of vamps, with an interesting little twist. I don't want to spoil it too much but it was a lovely little pulp story and if you only like the comic, this story caps things off and makes the price of the book worth it. I'd give the whole thing a 7 out of 10.

And now we get to the big dog, Dead Man's Hand. The first thing you folks, my fellow lovers of the weird west, will notice is the forward. It's by the man himself, Mr. Joe Lansdale. He essentially tells us to have the utmost faith in Nancy A. Collins and he ain't wrong. He actually says at one point that it's like all the positive traits of pulp stories got taken and blended together. After finishing all five stories, I'd say that's pretty damn accurate. I'll give a quick run through of each story, three of which are actually novellas.

The first story is a fun, pulpy tale of vampires and the Texas Ranger chasing them. “Hell Come Sundown” has some very interesting things going for it, including one area that I sincerely wish had been brought out more but admittedly, wouldn't have fit for the narrative at large. The story starts off one way, telling the tale of a young boy whose bedroom is haunted by something, and then swerves into the real story, the Ranger and the vamps. And it's quite the fun ride.

The second tale in this hand is “Lynch”. The best way to describe “Lynch” is that's a Frankenstein-revenge story set in the west. It speaks on the afterlife, revenge, racism, dying, loss, all the things good out in the weird frontier. I sorely loved this story. Especially the horse. I think you'll love the horse too.

The biggest offering in the hand is “Walking Wolf”. And it's a doozy. It's the story of a skinwalker. A werewolf, but not at all in the mainstream sense. Walking Wolf (the character) recounts his life for us, the reader. He was found by Comanches and raised as one. Being a skinwalker made things both easier and more difficult for him. His Comanche brethren (and the other tribes), viewed him as a good luck sign, or good medicine but he was not met without some fear at his “true face”. He makes some serious mistakes and exiles himself to learn more about what a skinwalker is and what he should do with his life. Along the way, he meets a crazy preacher that adopts him, snake oil salesman that takes him under his wing, a vampire gunslinger from Russia calling himself The Sundown Kid, and others. The story makes excellent use of history. Featured prominently is Sitting Bull and the forcing of the tribes into reservations. The plight is spoken of in an interesting way and doesn't get preachy. At least, I didn't feel it to get preachy. It's pulp and it's history and it's a lot of fun.

Now we get to the short stories. Second to last is "The Tortuga Hill Gang's Last Ride," which if you pay attention, is hinted at in the first story of the book. This story, well this one's an interesting little spin as it's based around the sidhe. The sidhe are Celtic creatures, for those who don't know. Nancy gives them a little spin as well. Center stage is greed and punishment, tied together with reputation. The Tortuga Hill gang has an unexpected visitor one day who proves himself extremely capable. But as is often the case in the weird west, his presence brings a less than favorable outcome.

The last story, “Calaverada,” is...well, it's the weak link here. It's an interesting story, no doubt but for what it tells, it's too short and too quick. It deals with the Mexican Day of the Dead. I honestly think that with more work, this story could've hit a Lovecraftian level (only without the inherent racism and occasional dryness). The ending is pretty Lovecraftian but alas, it falls short. I think this story should've opened or went second. It's a bad endcap.

Now, overall, I adore this collection and it gets a 10 from me. That last story should've gone in a different spot though. Ah well, I'm not the publisher. I highly recommend checking out both books, especially Dead Man's Hand. I had been craving weird westerns so badly and these two just filled me up right. I devoured Dead Man's Hand over the course of several days and probably would've done so quicker had I not been in the middle of moving. Check 'em out and keep 'em close.


Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the reviews Ashe. I may have to pick those up!

Ashe said...

Thank Mark for letting me do the review. Glad I could shed some light on some good books.

The Infernal Mr Adams said...

No problem Ashe, anytime. Great Job! :D