Memento Mori

My look at West’s #Savant series concludes.

Review: Memento Mori, David J. West, 2020. 

Cover by Warren Design

Most of the plot revelations were taken care of in the preceding #Savant book, In My Time of Dying. About half of this story is a chase with Elizabeth Dee and bodyguard Porter Rockwell trying to rescue John Dee from Count Germain. And John isn’t going to be offering much aid remotely to Elizabeth this time since he has been almost completely silenced and immobilized by Germain aka Edward Kelley, Dee’s old associate.

The story starts around Cheyenne with Elizabeth and Porter Rockwell attacking a train to get John Dee back. It will end in the Liberty County Jail in Missouri – a place Rockwell knows all too well since he spent – as he did in our timeline – many months imprisoned there.

Along the way we get cameo appearances by Crazy Horse (who fights a duel with Rockwell) and the James Gang and a special guest villain appearance by Helena Blavatsky.

There’s mayhem aboard trains and steamboats, and Rockwell will once again get to use those prototype pistols John Browning gave him.

This story is darker, moodier than its predecessor since we get some flashbacks to violent episodes in Rockwell’s life. (I wonder if one particularly strange one is a recap of another Rockwell story West has written.)

Another winning weird western from West, and I look forward to the third installment of the #Savant series.

In My Time of Dying

I liked the fourth installment of the #Savant series enough, “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” in Tales of the Al-Azif, that I decided to check out the first installment in the series. (The crosshatch in the series title makes sense in terms of the story, but I wonder if there also isn’t some Twitter marketing ploy at work.)

Review: In My Time of Dying, David J. West, 2019. 

Cover by Deranged Doctor Design

If my reviews of West’s work seem a bit short compared to others, it’s not just because his stories are in the novella or short novel range. It’s because they are well-done modern pulp, and part of the enjoyment of a good pulp story is usually the plot twists and turns and the set action pieces.

And there’s a lot to like here in terms of plot.

Our story opens not in the American West of 1875, where most of it takes place, but in the Himalayas in 1874. In a mountain fortress, a group called the Knights of St. Germain have a prisoner, and they’ve had him a long time. His name is John, an emaciated figure of skin and bones chained in a dungeon as he has been for many a decade. He is a sort of reservoir of lifeforce, constantly recharged by mysterious forces and then drained by Count St. Germain. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself now. John knows him under his old name, Edward.

Certain readers will no doubt tumble on to whom these two men are, especially since our series heroine is Elizabeth Dee. But, for those who don’t, I won’t spoil West’s slow reveal.

John is a man of formidable resources, an ability to dominate wills, and he makes a break from the fortress – by flinging himself off its high walls.

Continue reading “In My Time of Dying”

Home on the Strange

My look at David J. West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series concludes.

Review: Home on the Strange, David J. West, 2021

Cover by Carter Reid

A wagon train is wiped out by Indians leaving only Hannah, a girl, alive.

Captain Brady, newly out of West Point and sorry he just missed the action of the recently concluded Civil War, leads a cavalry troop to bring the Indian leader, Crazy Snake, and his men to justice.

Porter Rockwell serves as their scout. As a Mormon, he’s suspected of collaborating with the Indians.

And then, around the sinister outcropping of rock called the Pulpit, sentries begin to be picked off at night.  

It sounds like the elements of a typical western except it’s not because this is another in West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu tales. There’s something in the Pulpit besides hostile Indians. And there’s a voice in Hannah’s head who is giving her advice that she and Rockwell will need to drive the enemy in the mountain off.

This is another winning entry in the series, and it is the closest yet to a classic western plot. It’s got the humor and well-done action of other stories in the series. It’s classic pulp adventure in the Mythos tradition and a good weird western whose many surprising delights I will spoil with no further plot reveals.

There are some nice scenes out of the main action like when Rockwell meets Tanner, an old acquaintance of his who knows firsthand the secrets in Pulpit.

And it was nice to see Wovoka, the Indian prophet who inspired the Ghost Dance, getting a mention.

Let Sleeping Gods Lie

After reading West’s “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” and “The Haunter of the Wheel”, I wanted to read more of West’s fiction with Porter Rockwell. The latter story is part of West’s Cowboys & Cthulhu series, and this story seems the first in the series.

Review: Let Sleeping Gods Lie, David J. West. 2019. 

Cover by Carter Reid

When three Chinese miners show up at Porter Rockwell’s saloon one night, they are in a hurry to abandon their diggings around the camp of Murderer’s Bar. One of them is dying. They want to trade a “dragon bone” and a book for a horse and wagon. They found working them their claim on the putatively haunted Scorched Devil Ridge. Rockwell trades them a cart and mule for the goods but not before the Chinese mention the Old Ones and hungry ghosts, and that, in two nights, the stars will be right.

Well, the group doesn’t get far on the trail to Sacramento. They are found dead on the trail by two sometimes comical characters – though courageous enough — Zeke and Bowles. For that matter, the night watchman at the saloon is killed too.

And they won’t be the last killings Rockwell, employee Jack, faithful hound Dawg, and the fearsome Bloody Creek Mary will have to contend with. The question is are they just the depredations of the local Mountain Hound gang or something far stranger?

This one has more the feel of the traditional western than “The Haunter of the Wheel” with Rockwell spending almost as much time battling outlaws as a menace from the past linked to Zealia Bishop’s and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Mound”.

Of course, the mysterious Mr. Nodens shows up, always willing to provide hints to Rockwell but no actual help. Sasquatches do too.

Continue reading “Let Sleeping Gods Lie”

The Majestic 311

For the last two or three years, I’ve hankered for weird westerns at the turn of the year. Don’t know why.

So, after finishing Make Me King and also wanting to read more Blackmore, I bought this book.

Review: The Majestic 311, Keith C. Blackmore, 2019. 

Cover by Karri Klawiter

As the subtitle says, this is a “very weird western”. 

It opens with a classic western motif: a train robbery.

Leland Baxter’s and his six men are sketched quickly with Blackmore’s typically skillful dialogue.

Baxter is a natural leader of men, opposed to unnecessary violence, and willing to let his men complain – even if he doesn’t do anything about their complaints. Former circus strongman “Shorty” Charlie Williams is his taciturn and loyal henchman. Another of his friends is James “Jimmy” Norquay, former buffalo hunter, who met Baxter in a residential school for Indians Norquay being a Metis. Mackenzie Cass is a cattle rustler possessed of surprising bits of learning. Gilbert Butler is a gunrunner from America. His partner is the volatile, profane, and frequently insolent Eli Gallant. The last is our protagonist, orphan Nathan Rhodes, who once sought a career as a lawman before killing a boy who resisted arrest.

It’s a cold, wintery night in the Canadian Rockies. There’s a train from Canada bound for western Canada with the payroll of a mining company. And, since it has to slow to start climbing the Spirals, a winding tunnel going through the Rockies, it’s the perfect place to hop on it.

That’s the plan. But when Nathan and Baxter find a literally skeletal engineer in the cab – who opens the throttle up before leaping over the side, and the rest of the gang find way too many cars and no passengers, things get strange.

Continue reading “The Majestic 311”

Tales of Yog-Sothoth

I’m moving out of reading sequence here because David Hambling was kind enough to send me a copy of this and another book, The Book of Yig, which I’ll be reviewing next post. It promised to be just thing with not only another Harry Stubbs tale from Hambling but a weird western story in the book from David J. West.

Review: Tales of Yog-Sothoth, ed. C. T. Phipps, 2021.

Cover by Steve Smith

As Phipps notes in his “Foreword”, H. P. Lovecraft didn’t call his related set of stories the “Cthulhu Mythos”. He called them “Yog-Sothery”. Phipps likes Yog-Sothoth and regards that god, with his ability to open dimensional doorways and mate with humans, the key entity of the Lovecraft universe which has spawned who knows how many stories since.

The organizing structure is the same as Phipps’ successful anthology Tales of the Al-Azif: a set of stories from diverse authors, often working in their own Lovecraftian series, presented in chronological order with some links between the stories. I suppose, if you’re the sort of person obsessed by continuity and consistency, you may balk at that. I’m not and I don’t. I think of the Mythos as a bit like the Arthurian cycle of stories: a set of characters and their relationships which are reworked and elaborated by a variety of authors for their own ends. [Update: Matthew Davenport co-edited Tales of the Al-Azif.]

Or think of it as a literary equivalent of an AK-47: a bit loose in the way the parts fit together but reliable enough for rapid fire which usually hits the target.

However, I didn’t think this book worked as well that earlier book of Phipps.

It starts out well though.

Phipps’ own “The True Name of God” was excellent. I’ll admit my interest in the Crusades may have played a part in my enthusiasm. Set in Akka (aka Acre) occupied by the Crusaders, it follows Ali ad Fariq, an accomplished member of the Order of Assassins as he takes a strange job for an unexpected client. Rabbi Yosef ben Yosef wants him to hunt down something that’s killing Jewish women in the city. The victims include his own daughter.

Continue reading “Tales of Yog-Sothoth”

The Ravine

Usually, I know exactly what I’m going to read after I finish a book. However, back last New Year’s Eve, I thought I needed a break.

A weird western was just the thing.

Review: The Ravine, William Meikle, 2013.

Cover by M. Wayne Miller

While this isn’t my favorite kind of weird western, I think the most inventive ones are science fiction stories that don’t use time travel or aliens, I still found this story gripping and fast moving. 

Meikle starts the action right away with a cavalry squad swept to another dimension where they are recruited in a fight to keep Satan imprisoned. Only one survives, Stevens, who is imbued with the weaponry and power of an angel and returns to our world. 

The second viewpoint character is Joe Clancy. He’s a rancher with his wife Jessie, son Tommy, and hired hand and family friend Paddy Doyle. His ranch is on the brink of being foreclosed on; there is a drought, and he needs the cattle in good shape to make his mortgage payment. Meikle really makes you feel the plight of the Clancys all through this story.

Continue reading “The Ravine”

The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones

(This first appeared in Innsmouth Free Press  on July 4, 2013.)

Review; The Weird Western Adventures of Haakon Jones, Aaron B. Larson, 1999.

]n 1874, 17-year-old Haakon Jones leaves Minnesota, his mother dead, his older brother set to inherit the farm. Trading in his prized violin for a Colt Army revolver, which is going to see a whole lot of use in the next 32 years, he wanders the American West and beyond, ending up in San Francisco just in time to be involved with its 1906 earthquake. You could think of him as sort of a Western version of haakonjones-w622-h350Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane. Indeed, the book is dedicated to Howard, except the ideals his Unitarian pastor back home admonishes him to remain true to are less fervently Christian than Kane’s Puritanism.

That’s all very nice, I hear you say, but why are you covering a 14-year-old book – and a Weird Western, at that? Innsmouth Free Press’s own J. Keith Haney, in his Retronomicon column, already does that quite ably. Why? Because this book deserves to be more widely known.

There are new additions to the Weird Western subgenre all the time in games, fiction, comics, and movies. I’ve been interested in it for decades, starting with old Twilight Zone comic books and the Clint Eastwood movies High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. The trouble is that, while I haven’t looked at every single example of the subgenre, I have sampled quite a few and most have been disappointing. For me, that disappointment comes in three areas: annoying and unrealistic depictions of the West, conceptually lazy plots that simply throw werewolves or vampires or aliens into a western setting, and a failure to evoke a sense of place. The latter is important because, after all, place, a particular geographical setting and historical time, defines the “western” half of the “Weird Western.”

Now, there are werewolves and space aliens and vampires in this book, but there’s also a whole lot of other weirdness, a true smorgasbord of it. There is a golem, giant critters, weaponized vampire bats, lake monsters, Sasquatch, witches, trolls, a Mayan mummy, zombies, flying saucers, ghosts, Wendigo, Nazis, a mad scientist, and, yes, some Lovecraftian monsters, too. (Besides Howard, Lovecraft is another of the pulp authors the book is dedicated too.) There are more conventional menaces, as well: a pedophile, a gang of gunmen, and, in what I suspect is an homage to Howard’s boxing stories, a heavyweight champion of Mexico.

Larson can cram all this into less than three hundred pages because this fix-up novel is told through 35 chronologically arranged stories, most having first been published in Classic Pulp Fiction Stories in the 1990s. If you’re bored with one sort of monster, it’s not long until the next one will show up. Jones’ narration is often wry, sometimes poetic. It’s the speech of a drifter with a yen to learn life’s secrets. He frequently stops at libraries when he comes across them. It’s not the tall-tale, laconic, over-the-top drawl of Joe Lansdale’s Jonah Hex, which I never liked.

Larson also conveys a sense of the real American West and its people, though not every story is set there. Lakota mythology shows up with Hin-Han, the owl spirit that becomes a regular warning of the eerie about to show up in Jones’ life. His friend, and occasional partner in adventure, is Small Jumper, a Lakota he meets while both serve as scouts in Colonel Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.

One story involves a Dakota Territory community of what my parents would have called “Black Russians,” German immigrants from the Black Sea area. Cameo appearances of historical and fictional characters of the time abound: Buffalo Bill Cody; characters from the TV westerns, The Wild, Wild West and Have Gun, Will Travel; and the man associated with the most significant work of fantasy to come out of South Dakota, Frank L. Baum of Oz fame. In the zone between history and fiction, Larson also works in the legend of El Dorado, the disappearance of the Anasazi, and Vikings in America.

Larson also does a fine job of evoking place. Now, I have to admit my perceptions may be colored by my own unique perspective. I’ve either lived or been to the places mentioned in his Minnesota and Dakota Territory stories. (Indeed, the first place I ever saw this book mentioned was South Dakota Magazine.) On the other, hand S. P. Somtow wrote a long novel, Moon Dance, set at the same time and in many of the same areas, and didn’t bring the place to life. And, while I’ve never been to Seattle, I thought the story “In Seattle the Rain Comes for You!” did a nice job describing the city. That story, incidentally, seems both a nod to and argument with Lovecraft’s somewhat notorious “The Horror at Red Hook.” Both involve dastardly cults conducting underground rites in sleazy port cities, but Jones is helped in his fight against evil by a black preacher.

And, yes, there are quite-specific Lovecraftian elements here. Captain Lawton, Jones’ superior in the Army, is a reoccurring character with an interest in blasphemous books. They include Larson’s addition to that library, Olag Tryggvesson’s Dagbok av en Vanvittig Djevel av-en Utenfor Natt, which seems to translate as “Diary of a Mad Devil of Outside Night.” There’s also the little detour to an uncharted island in the Pacific in “Surf City, Here I Come” and the monster lurking in New Mexico in “The Door in the Desert.”

Now, this is not a perfect book and some of the flaws were more obvious on my second reading. Obviously, you’re not going to get a whole lot of character development in such short stories. Sometimes past subjects of Jones’ romantic attraction are too conveniently mentioned in only one story. Larson maintains his continuity pretty well, but one villain, seemingly killed in one story, pops up later in others. Perhaps, as the foreword says, we need to “forgive an old man’s memory.”

The reaction to a character’s death in the actually rather poignant and powerful “Can You Hear a Ghost Dance …,” based on the conflict between Small Jumper, who rejects the promises of the Ghost Dance, and his son, who joins the movement, weakens the story’s emotional effect. I was somewhat disappointed to see the supernatural menace of two of the stories set in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota, my old stomping grounds, to be somewhat vague in their manifestations and resolutions, though most of the stories set in that locale pleased me. And, of particular sorrow to a Lovecraft fan, I have to state that the problems brought up by some of the characters’ names in “Action on Arkham’s Boot Hill” almost completely ruined the story for me.

Still, though, Jones remains the high point of my travels in Weird Western territory, and I suspect many of you Innsmouth folk will cotton to something in it.

 

 

Discovery

This one came to as a gift from Henry Ram, regular reader of this blog, who has a story in the collection and whose weird westerns I’ve reviewed.

Since it had a story by Daniel J. West who had a piece in Tales of the Al-Azif, I decided to read it now.

Review: Discovery: A Challenge! Series Anthology of Heroic Tales, ed. Jason M. Waltz, 2017.

Challenge
Cover by V. Shane

Sword and sorcery or, as it’s called now, heroic fantasy, is not a genre I read a lot of. I don’t have anything against it. It’s just that I’d rather read other things. I do have fond memories of reading some of Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords anthologies in the 1970s when I was a kid. They led me to Michael Moorcock’s many novels. But, apart from those, I haven’t read a lot of it.

These stories have all the things I want out of sword and sorcery stories: heroic figures, beautiful women, giant spiders and snakes, mysterious ruins, meticulously described violence, and devious sorcerers. The writers all put me in their worlds to smell the dust, sweat in the jungles, freeze in winters, and gasp at wondrous magic.

The heroes and heroines sometimes fight to save whole peoples and sometimes just a single person. Sometimes they survive. Sometimes they don’t

Sometimes the worlds of the stories are in our past, sometimes our future, sometimes in a some when where the names have a familiar ring.

The challenge of the title was that every single author had to, somewhere in a heroic story, incorporate the cover image by V. Shane. Writing to a cover illustration is a fine pulp tradition.

A couple of stories may have stayed in my memory for only a couple of days, but I had a good time reading every single one.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a weird western here. “Someplace Cool and Dark” by Frederic Durbin has a couple of treasure hunters in the American West. They battle strange critters in caves to retrieve gold left behind by a mysterious and vaguely Lovecraftian race called the Old Ones. But the real enemy is a criminal gang seeking that same treasure and who ambushes the pair in town. It’s a tale of blazing guns, laconic men, and deep if understated friendship and loyalty. Durbin also contributes the sole non-fiction piece in the book, “The Writing of ‘Someplace Cool and Dark’”. It doesn’t add much and is half the length of the story.

And there’s a third Durbin piece, “A Fire in Shandria”. The old queen of an Amazonian society has been overthrown by her sister Azanah. Something like a police state has been created, and our heroine Ragaan runs afoul of it when her secret meetings with an imprisoned dragon she has a telepathic link with are discovered. Azanah fears it is the fulfillment of an old prophecy predicting her downfall and tries to kill Ragaan who then has to go on the run from her still loyal old comrades and free the deposed queen.

For me, both of Dubin’s tales were highlights of the book.

Keith J. Taylor’s “Witch with Bronze Teeth” doesn’t take place in the jungle setting you might expect from the cover illustration. Given my interest in the Crusading orders, including their spinoff in the Teutonic Knights, I was hoping they wouldn’t be the villains here. But they are, and medieval Lithuanians are fighting for their lives against them. Taylor focuses on the Knights as viewpoint characters though all will come to bad – and memorable –ends.

In heroic fantasy, you’ve got your warriors and your wizards, And, of course, you have thieves. Liridonia is one of the latter in Richard Berrigan’s “Fire Eye Gem”. At first she just wants the titular rock to bring her lover, who accompanies her as a panther, back to human form. Time is running out, he tells her. He’s growing more like an animal every day. But an African tribe is dying, and they need to the gem to survive. They’ve sent a legendary warrior to get the gem before Liridonia does.

I would argue that John Kilian’s “Inner Nature” doesn’t exactly fulfill the heroic remit. The narrator is a dying man from sort of a Roman-like Empire that has penetrated into kind of a sub-Saharan Africa. He’s the sole survivor, mortally wounded, of that expedition. I suppose his relations with a woman in a fabled jungle city represent a sacrifice of a sort, but most of the story’s vigor comes from hearing about what happens before he lays dying.

The Ash-Wood of Celestial Flame” by Gabe Dybing was one of the book’s stories that left my mind quickly. Heroine Wuf-Pei is sent on a quest to find the celestial light that can save her fellow women back home as they are threatened by something coming out of the village’s quarry. I suspect the story’s jumping about in time and having two lovers as living symbols of cosmic forces may account for it not sticking with me longer.

The challenge that created the book came with prizes, and Frederik Tor’s “World Inside the Walls” got third place. A man fleeing from thugs in a city enters a deserted compound where the remains of the previous inhabitants, slaughtered years ago, are still about. But he does meet one lone survivor, a girl. It’s a simple and poignant love story with lots of fighting.

I liked the background for Daniel R. Robichaud’s “In the Ruins of the Panther People” in what seems to be a future where advanced science (though still nothing we can do and with a steampunkish air about it) is indistinguishable from sorcery and many of the names sound like corruptions of those from the European Middle Ages. The story has a set up similar to “Inner Nature” – the hero is the sole survivor of an expedition to a jungle city – but goes on to include raiders from the sky and an army that becomes smoke when killed only to reform. One of my favorites in the book.

David J. West’s “The Serpent’s Root” is a somewhat humorous tale with some unexpected plot twists. Its heroine is a thief that needs the tooth of a cockatrice to remove a curse on her sister. The help she gets along the way is surprising as is her helper’s fate.

Nicolas Ozment picked up well-deserved second place with “Cat’s in the Cradle” which is something like heroic fantasy crossed with film noir. Telarra, a Warrior of the Higher Law who lives in poverty and travels the land dispensing justice and protecting peasants (sometimes from their own foolishness), is hired by a dodgy sorcerer to find a gem needed to ransom his son. Said son just happens to be an old lover of Telarra, so she takes the job despite her well-founded misgivings.

You wouldn’t expect to see Vikings in the plush jungle implied by the cover image, but that’s what you get in Henry Ram’s well-done, first place winner, “Attabeira”. A group of Vikings search the Caribbean for a Northmen expedition that vanished 20 years ago. It even finds the expedition’s remains and some survivors. They include one who now thinks she’s a god and is at the center of a power struggle. The story ends on a nicely gloomy note of sacrifice and future doom and, like “Inner Nature”, the idea that heroism can be an essence apart from action.

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

“Personal Devil”

Looking through Joel Jenkins’ author page on Amazon, I came across a Lone Crow story that isn’t in either The Coming of Crow or The Condemnation of Crow.

Review: “Personal Devil”, Joel Jenkins, 2014.

Occult Detectives
Cover by Rob Davis and Jesus Rodriguez

Demon Hunter, Priesthood Bearer, Slayer of Dark Souls … Flapping Crow, Last of Your Tribe, and Doomed Man 

are the latest titles Indian bounty hunter and monster slayer Lone Crow gets in this story. The supernatural menace sneering that here is a kurdaitcha (though, in my bit of research, not having the powers of the similarly named being out of Australian Aborigine mythology).

Crow is summoned to California by Mormon gunfighter Porter Rockwell (who, just like in our history, is frequently accused of trying to kill Missouri Governor Boggs). Rockwell has been dispatched by Brigham Young to collect some tithes from the saints in California. They were paid to a Sam Brannan. Sam didn’t turn them over to the Temple in Salt Lake City.

The trouble is Brannan isn’t co-operating and seems possessed by some evil being. Rockwell thinks Crow, with his extensive dealings with forces beyond mere human evil, can help.

This story is long enough to give Jenkins some breathing space and deviates from the usual Lone Crow formula. The pair will go to San Francisco and confront the kurdaitcha and its freezing powers and a secret society, formed by Brannan within the San Francisco Vigilance Committee, gunning for Rockwell.

It’s another engaging installment in this weird western series with plenty of gunplay and supernatural menace. For Lone Crow fans, the story takes place after “The Vanishing City” and “The Five Disciples”, and this story has a three black and white illustrations as well.

 

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