Sunday, December 4, 2011

Servante of Darkness #5: The Weird Western Rides Again

Deadstock by Ian Rogers
Reviewed by Anthony Servante

Welcome, dear readers, to my fifth installment into the workings of Horror in literature today. This month we trod the dusty trails of the Weird Western, from Ghost Rider to Samuel Dryden and his sidekick, Raisy. We’ll take a peek at the genre of Western novels and see how the Weird Western tweaks it. Horror fans need not be Western fans to enjoy the supernatural bent of “Deadstock” (2011).

We connote the literature of the Western with Cowboys and Indians (alright, Native American Tribes People), Trailblazers and Gunfighters, Ranchers and Banditos, Wanted Men and Bounty Hunters, a lawless land prospered by Easterners, Children of the Mayflower seeking to expand their colonial roots by ‘Going West’ into the American Frontier; we think of cattle drives, the burgeoning of new towns, shops and saloons, the new Sheriff, pioneers settling down on “Injun” territory, some surviving, others being massacred for pilfering Indian lands, the railroad looming large across the frontier, reaching from coast to coast. The Age of the West marked its turf between 1849, the Gold Rush, and 1886, the surrender of Geronimo, the final and fatal attempt by an Indian to strike back at the White Man, interlopers and squatters on Native American country. With Geronimo’s failure to reclaim Apache soil, the Wild West ended and the Industrial Age began.

We acknowledge authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour with Romanticizing the Old West. They give us heroes and villains, damsels in distress, and the anti-hero, an outlaw admired and feared by the law-abiding citizens of the New West. But the Romantic Age is a two-edged sword: Whereas the Wild West deals with good guys and bad, the Weird West breaks new ground by turning to the Supernatural for its villains. While Western literary heroes such as the Lone Ranger, Shane, and Lash Larue kept readers fascinated with the genre, Lon Williams in 1951 introduced Lee Winters, a Marshal’s Deputy who fought demons, ghosts and terrible Greek gods. A few years earlier, the Ghost Rider, created by writer Ray Krank and artist Dick Ayers, took on vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night. Ayers revived the character in 1967 for Marvel Comics, who later turned the character into the fiery-skulled anti-hero on a flaming motorcycle, while AC Comics purchased the rights to the original western hero garbed in white, renaming him The Haunted Horseman.

Ian Rogers continues the tradition of the Weird Western in his latest work. Rogers writes, “Stonebunny Press recently published my first foray into the Weird West, a novelette called "Deadstock." No one knows who or what is killing the cattle at Groom ranch, but Sam Dryden, with his supernatural greenwood gun, and Raisy, with her ‘deck’ of knives, are determined to find out. What they discover is more horrifying than either of them ever dreamed, and the secret may be one that takes them to the grave.” As the story unfolds, elements that comprise the mystery can be discerned.

The symbolism of the Weird Western jumps out at the reader from the get-go. The Marshal Jacobs rides out to meet our heroic duo dressed in black, a foreboding sign given that he’s beyond 60 years old, an abnormal age for this period when 50 years was the common life expectancy. Statistically, only 2.5 men reached the age of 65 in the late 1800s. That means 97.5 men didn’t live much longer than their forties on average. In contrast, Dryden has “babyface” looks, signifying an uncanny youthful appearance of innocence to an inward grittiness or hardboiled-ness; Raisy has “flaming red hair”, denoting a temper and an infernal nature (she pack knives as weapons—an ancient armory; note also Dryden’s ancient pistol). And the Marshal seems only interested in checking their weapons, as if he were waiting for a pair of riders carrying such ware. Raisy also carries a cat (August Finch—named for a fortune teller), a ‘familiar’ in the days when the colonists feared witches. Add to this contrast in ages that a man and woman travel together out in the Wild West, and we get a glimmer of Adam and Eve tossed out of Paradise into an unknown world of sin and evil. Even as they approach the mysterious ranch, Dryden points out, “He didn’t understand why anyone would want to settle in such a godforsaken place.” These are foreshadows of evils to come.

Against the naturally torrid and hellish heat of the desert, there are the supernatural elements subtly described, an inversion of Nature. At the ranch, a young girl plays with a scorpion, the symbol for death, and even as Dryden warns her of the danger of such play, she snatches up the insect and tosses it into the water to drown. Whatever evil has infested the ranch, it has had its effect on the child as well as the other children. She loves saying ‘devil’ again and again, while her pa, Chester Groom, refers to Dryden as “a gift from God.” The Groom family also seems to be suffering unnatural aches and pains, and abnormal behavior is displayed. Even though the cattle at the ranch are mutilated, the vultures avoid the carcasses. Nature is unbalanced. As Dryden and Raisy burn the carcass of the steer, “They stood in silence as the steer went up in flames. The heat blanketed them, but they still felt a chill, as if there was a part of themselves that could never be warmed.” Even the term ‘deadstock’ is the antonym of ‘livestock’. Something evil has inverted the natural order. Our heroes, too, are warned of the evils upon them: “[The supernatural threats] have been brought back against the natural laws. They will not rest until order has been restored.”

The symbolism and supernatural elements come to a head as the mystery of the deadstock becomes clearer to our heroes and they understand what must be done to put nature back in balance. Horror fans will not be disappointed with the final battle.

The novella captures the West with descriptive details of the desert, the small town, and the Groom ranch. The dialog also echoes what we have come to expect from western-speak without relying on clichés. Because the visage of the old west looms so large and accurate, the sci-fi and horror elements work within the framework to create a good counter-balance between the normal west and the weird west. Deadstock is a welcome addition to the Weird Western tradition. Dryden and Raisy can be placed with confidence alongside Joe R. Lansdale’s Jonah Hex, Ray Krank’s Ghost Rider, and Lon Williams’ Lee Winters. I look forward to further rides into the Weird West with Ian Rogers.

--Anthony Servante