Science Fiction Trails 11

I read a fair amount of weird westerns in 2017, and most were from Science Fiction Trails or its editor and publisher David B. Riley.

With every annual issue, Riley’s Science Fiction Trails magazine (at least starting with issue seven when I started reading them) packed an impressive variety into its literary saddlebags. Surprisingly, a lot of its stories didn’t go with the old store-bought plots of time travel and aliens.

Eventually, though, Riley couldn’t find enough contributors and the magazine went on hiatus.

Low Res Scan: Science Fiction Trails 11, ed. David B. Riley, 2014.SF Trails 11

Editor Riley has his usual gang of tried-and-true contributors here and some new hands too.

The work is sound, not really awful and seldom outstanding. But they’re all good enough to push you along the trail even though the destination is sometimes is a bit dry at that end.

Star performance went to Jackson Kuhl’s “Red River”. That’s red as in anarchists and red as in Martians. Kuhl has the Martian invasion, complete with tripods and red weed, of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds turning the trans-Mississippi American West into a war zone. The red weed seeks out moisture everywhere and that includes human bodies when it mutates to a lethal infection. The U.S. Army in airtight, modified Martian tripods wage war on the infestation. But that army needs money, supplies, and men, and the locals start to become real resentful about supplying them. It’s a dark, mosaic piece of different scenes and points of view that carom from killer plague to killer anarchists.

Paradigm Lost” from R. A. Conine seems incomplete. If the subtitle, “Episode 1 of the Chronicles of Red Blade”, is a clue, that’s because it’s probably the first in a series of one about Sans Arc Sioux warrior Red Blade who finds himself whisked away from victory at the Battle of the Little Big Horn to a world where Indians and whites live at peace – because horrible critters from another dimension, the Dead, have wiped out most people in America and the survivors live in squalid bands. Blade meets the cause of this, and the story ends with him in yet another war in our timeline. Red Blade has, improbably, a degree in mathematics from Oxford though that’s of no relevance to anything in the story. Continue reading


The Devil Draws Two

A couple of months ago it was time for the summer trip west and back to South Dakota.

That meant it was time to read the usual nonfiction Old West history book and a weird western. (I already did the usual geology reading.)

I’ll get to the history book another time.

I’ve been reading David B. Riley’s work on and off since encountering his publication Science Fiction Trails in 2013.

I am rather picky about what I consider a successful weird western. Ideally, it should be science fictional and not take the easy route of using magic and avoid the easy crutches of time travel and aliens.

Under Riley’s editorship, a surprising number of stories managed to do that.

Perhaps that standard was why Riley had trouble getting submissions and eventually ended publication of the magazine.

Science Fiction Trails is back, though, and I might do a review of its too most recent editions, both available in print and kindle form.

It was in another defunct Riley magazine, the first issue of Steampunk Trails, that I first met his character Miles O’Malley in “The Big Green Orb”. That story takes place after the ones in this omnibus.

Review: The Devil Draws Two: The Weird Western Adventures of Miles O’Malley, David B. Riley, 2012.Devil Draws Two

Miles O’Malley would be the first to tell you he’s not very bright and kind of naïve and that his horse Paul is smarter than he is.

He’s not a very good barber either.

Yet, as he wanders about the West circa 1880, he manages to tangle with vampires, time travelers, Susquatches, a robot, Martians, ghosts, demons and best them through some mix of charm, a lot of luck, and some fine shootin’ courtesy of a special revolver.

Which brings up Miles’ mighty peculiar circle of friends and acquaintances. There’s Nick Mephistopheles who gave him that gun. Miles doesn’t just pay a call to Hell to meet Nick. Miles also goes to Heaven.

There’s Molly Madison, intrepid female reporter and fellow boarder at the same San Francisco rooming house as Miles. Wing Ding, Chinese laundry owner and smuggler, tags along for a few adventures. Continue reading

The Ultimate Werewolf

This isn’t Halloween programming. It contains a story by Kathe Koja, and I’m working on a couple of postings of her work.

Raw Feed (1993): The Ultimate Werewolf, eds. Byron Preiss, David Keller, Megan Miller, and John Betancourt, 1991.ultimate-werewolf

Introduction”, Harlan Ellison — Ellison makes an interesting case regarding the movie The Wolf Man as the inspiration for most modern werewolf tales, the reason the sub-genre became popular, and the source of most of the werewolf folklore movies and literature.

Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54’ N Longitude 77° 00’ 13”, Harlan Ellison — It’s a great title and some of the writing and ideas are very good. I particularly liked Lawrence Talbot’s much hated fish and the idea of minituarizing yourself to travel a literal and fantastic inner landscape. Ellison does a good job with the scientific sounding doubletalk. However, the story bored me, and I found it alternately trivial and incomprehensible. Clearly, Ellison is trying to say something. The various images are designed to meet symbolic and thematic purposes: Talbot’s thoughts of mother link to entering his body through the navel and blood red placenta-like sea, his much hated pet fish links to the deadly fish of his interior landscape who kills dreams and dies at story’s end for lack of a worshipper, Talbot has the same name as the protagonist of the movie The Wolf Man but that end is unclear, or, worse, trivial. In his interior landscape, Talbot finds alls sorts of toys from a 30s and 40s childhood in a burst of nostalgia that reminded me of Ellison’s “Jefty Is Five” but not nearly as well-used here. (If Talbot is really that young, why does he want to die so badly? He can’t be an unnaturally old man at the time of the story. Is it the guilt? Another failing is no dealing with the relationship between Talbot and Victor’s father.) The point of the story is that it’s only one’s soul that makes life valueable but this soul quantity is unknowable and symbolized by, of all things, a “Howdy Doody button” (and, no, Ellison doesn’t assign specific human attributes like humor, naiveté, or innocence to the button). My reaction was much like Victor’s: “What the hell’s that supposed to signify…”. A story that never really gelled into anything.

Wolf, Iron, and Math”, Philip José Farmer — A slight story but better than I expected. The two major points of interest in this story are Farmer dwelling on the many details of the werewolf transformation experience, and a pleasant experience it i,s and the werewolf magazine complete with personals section in which people promise not to eat their date’s children. Continue reading


I’m ending the weird western series with some borderline cases.
Raw Feed (2004): Guardian, Joe Haldeman, 2002.Guardian
In some ways this is a slight novel; in some ways it’s a typical Joe Haldeman novel; in some ways it’s a disappointing novel.
Haldeman has almost written a weird western here. He gives us a novel mostly set in the 1890s about a woman and her son fleeing the husband who has horribly abused them both. At crucial moments, they meet a talking raven who offers them good advice or ominous warnings. She flees from Philadelphia to Alaska. Her son meets a sudden, violent end when he is murdered in the Klondike gold rush. At the moment of hearing the news and about to commit suicide, the raven is revealed to be a shapeshifting alien who also wears the guise of a Indian shaman who has been teaching her Tlingit in Sitka, Alaska. The raven takes her on a shapeshifting tour of alternate universes and time itself. He is a guardian of life and is worried that not only will the narrator kill herself but that humanity, like many intelligent species, will kill itself.
Ultimately, he moves her to another dimension where her son lives. More importantly, the man killed with her son, who she has promised to marry, does not die, and the two have a son who works on the Manhattan Project and figures out a way of building a third atomic bomb which is demonstrated for the Japanese in Tokyo Bay. In some unexplained way, that saves humanity from annihilation in the 1990s.

Continue reading

Two Tiny Claws

The road jam continues in producing new stuff, so you’re getting more weird western stuff.

Raw Feed (2007): Two Tiny Claws, Brett Davis, 1999.Two Tiny Claws

Despite the annoying historical error of having something called the Wild Bill Hickok show in 1907 (he never had a Wild West Show and he was already dead by the events — October 1876 — of the prequel Bone Wars), this was much more enjoyable, involving, and coherent than Bone Wars.

The latter novel suffered from never really explaining the motives of the alien “Swedes” and Icelanders (here called the Nes, reptilian aliens) and trying to get too much humor out of the feud between real life paleontologists Marsh and Cope. This novel explains the alien feud, with Nes spies in disguise amongst the Swedes, the motives for the Swedes looking for dinosaur bones (cleaning up evidence of alien genetic experiments on a past Earth), and manages to evoke more emotion than the most emotional event, Sitting Lizards’s death, of the first novel.

Here Sitting Lizard’s son is a paleontologist and his mother Alice Stilson shows up (she’s also written a tabloid account of the first novel’s events and fittingly called it Bone Wars). However, the novel’s emotion is supplied effectively by three characters. The grief of the historical paleontologist Barnum Brown over his dead wife overpowers the Swede leader Kan when he reads his Brown’s mind. (The Swedes, creatures of incorporeal form normally, are overpowered by the passions of us apes.) Earth Reclamation Unit 17, cloned from Digger Phelps (who shows up here again) in the first novel and modified cybernetically, latches on to his model and thirstily devours all the memories the dying Phelps can give him. He ends up marooned on Earth at novel’s end along with the Nes spy Lasse who convincingly becomes a convert to Christianity because of the guilt he feels at killing his fellow agent to avoid detection. There’s a fair amount of action, mostly supplied by gunfighter Luther Gumpson under mind control.

And, as with the first novel, dinosaur simulacra roam about, here a tyrannosaurus rex.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Bone Wars

The weird western series continues, this time with a science fictional weird western.

Raw Feed (2007): Bone Wars, Brett Davis, 1998.Bone Wars

A sometimes plodding story of the real-life paleontologists Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope competing for bones in Montana in 1876. They come across two competing aliens who, for reasons not entirely clear (a war fought between aliens?, genetic experiments?, splicing genetic material into Earth’s organisms?, racial pride?) who want the bones. They decide to foil their efforts. Another real paleontologist, Charles Sternberg, is a character as is Sitting Bull.

There is a little, and not often successful, attempt at wry humor and a bit of genuine tragedy when the lover of Al Stilson aka Alice Stilson, Sitting Lizard aka George Burgess, is shot and killed. Still, not really very interesting as a weird western, a story of alien intrigue and technology, or fossil hunting


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor?

Devil’s Engine

The weird western series continuous with a look at the sequel to Devil’s Tower.

Raw Feed (1997): Devil’s Engine, Mark Sumner, 1997.Devil's Engine

I didn’t like this novel as well as Devil’s Tower.
For one thing, the ending is a little too coy, but I gather Dr. Stone is Malcolm mysteriously healed by the time-hopping Boots who,  it seems, will marry Muley Owens. It also seems as the Rainmaker (with the interesting curse/talent of a thunderstorm that follows him about) dies.
The story was suspenseful enough, and I like the comparison between William Cody and his dime-novel persona, Buffalo Bill Cody. Still, there is little to this story beyond some fights and chases. The sailing stagecoach of Owens and the Rainmaker – son of the famous arms-manufacturing Spencer family – was a nifty, if improbable image, and the chase of the train was good.
The coming of the transcontinental railroad that sucks up the magical energy of the talented and pools it for lethal work is not much more than a device to justify the plot. What it will mean for the West of this novel is not really explored. Sumner mentions economic prosperity. Possibly, but what about the balance of political power? Will the concentration of magical energy produce – as is implied – concentrations of political power? Will the inhabitants of the West necessarily object to the subjugation of the talented? Cody does but is he typical? Part of the anarchy that reigns in the West seems to spring from “talents”.

Continue reading

Devil’s Tower

While I slowly creep towards actually writing something new, you get more weird westerns.

Raw Feed (1997): Devil’s Tower, Mark Sumner, 1996.Devil's Tower

This book is labeled as an alternate history though the hinge the alternate timeline swings on – that the bloody Civil War unleashed magical energy that could be harnessed by the talented – is not sufficiently rationalistic to justify the label. Still, given the conceit, Sumner provides a fairly well worked West and America.

The Civil War still drags on with neither side having the will or resources to really pursue victory. The West is becoming rapidly depopulated through a combination of factors. The Civil War has played havoc with the money supply since both US and Confederate money circulates. With the rise of “talents”, various magical abilities possessed by a few (Sumner creates magic via words – “chanting”, magic “signing”, shapeshifting, prophecy – “casting”, the ability to conjure up beings of various material), towns fall prey to the talented – whether they are bandits or extortionist sheriffs that offer protection.

Sumner keeps the plot moving with lots of set pieces – the demon possessed Custer (at least he’s possessed by something) wipes out a gathering of Indians at Greasy Grass aka the Little Big Horn, protagonist Jake Bird battles a re-animated fossil dinosaur, a challenge between a Sheriff and an Indian shaman using conventional weapons and magic, and the dispatching of a spirit called up by a dying Indian medicine man at Greasy Grass and then gone rogue. Of course, part of the fun of alternate histories is having historical personages show up in recast roles. The possessed Custer is the arch-villain and fittingly enough he draws power from the worship and adoration of others. In fact, he originally possesses no talent, but his lust for power leads him to strike a bad deal with a spirit around Devil’s Tower. (The camp and climax around Devil’s Tower are pretty creepy as the bodies pile up.). William Quantrill shows up as an appropriately ruthless villain. Morgan Earp makes an appearance as an extortionist gun man. Continue reading

Shadow on the Sun

More weird western stuff.

Raw Feed (1995): Shadow on the Sun, Richard Matheson, 1994.Shadow on the Sun 2

This is probably one of the best fantastic Western stories I’ve read in that the supernatural/fantastic element is central to the story (unlike Roger Zelazny’s and Gerald Hausman’s Wilderness) and in that it seemed to evoke the feeling of the real West (unlike S. P. Somtow’s Moon Dance which seemed more a modern rumination on child abuse and multiple personalities than an historical novel).

The son of Vandaih and offspring of a union between a white woman and an eagle (I haven’t been able to verify if Apache mythology has any such story) was a suitable supernatural nemesis and were-creatures (an eagle) of great violence and power.

Matheson told a suspenseful tale involving the selfish Apache shaman Night Doctor, banished from his tribe for “tampering”; Professor Dodge, mysteriously sought by Vandaih’s son; honorable Indian agent Billjohn Finley who truly cares for his Apache charges and the fate of all Indians; and callow, arrogant young bureaucrat David Bontelle who learns there is more to the world and cosmos than he suspects. Finley in particular is a well-done character. Not only is he brave but he has a passion and anger in him that he controls when dealing with Bontelle and others so that he can serve the Apaches best. Continue reading

Moon Dance

The weird western series continues with the disappointing Moon Dance.

Raw Feed (1991): Moon Dance, S. P. Somtow, 1989.Moon Dance

This novel wasn’t what I expected. I expected an epic feeling novel, instead of just a long novel, with many short scenes and lots of violent confrontations between European and Lakota werewolves and a book with a feeling of history. What I got was a thoroughly literary novel of character; a study of alienation and the beast within with the werewolf a symbol of social and personal alienation (the most extreme example being Johnny Kindred’s multiple personalities) and the lustful id (much of Freud in the dream sequences); long, minute descriptions of characters and their relationships; and some Indian mysticism.

Let me explain. This novel is full of alienated halfbreeds. The most obvious one is Teddy Grumiaux, half-Sioux, half white. All the werewolfs are half-breeds, of course. All these characters are biological halfbreeds, psychological halfbreeds, and cultural halfbreeds. They are torn by their “genetic” heritages and the conflicts of good and evil in themselves and the pull of two cultures. The Indians represent, in their holistic philosophy, an integration of man’s propensity for good and evil, compassion and ruthlessness, lust and love. It’s no accident Johnny Kindred begans to integrate under them. It’s also no accident that this novel gives us a bit of the noble savage in the Indians. They, unlike European werewolves, are not lustful creatures preying on the innocent. They see themselves as part of a great circle of nature serving a function as human and wolf. While we have the psychopathics Major Sanderson and Cordwainer Claggert as the evil whites, we see little evil in the Indians.

However, it is not fair to Somtow to say he breaks morality along racial lines. After all, white Kindred is the werewolf, symbol of the moral and philosophical integration we must have. Speranza, our viewpoint character, is attracted to the evil European werewolves but ultimately risks all for Johnny Kindred. (How does Kindred know enough of her life and thoughts when she’s away from him to narrate the story to Carrie Dupre? Seemingly through a mystical, telepathic bond never really explained.) The evil of the Europeans and whites is more a symbol of universal human evil. The characters of Johnny Kindred and Teddy Grumiaux (a profane train urchin I started out hating a lot) were compelling. Multiple personalities in a werewolf are interesting. Speranza was a good, but not great, character torn between evil’s repulsion and the attraction to the evildoer. Count von Bächl-Wolfing was a relatively minor, but well-drawn character, not as ruthless as Natalia Petrovona. The latter embodied the psychology of wolf but little human. (Yes, this book does, as Edward Bryant said in his Locus review, have an incredible number of urine references, but I liked Somtow giving the werewolves very wolf-like traits.) Continue reading