by Joe R. Lansdale
Night Shade Books
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Joe R. Lansdale is one of those writers whose prose crackles with so much energy you wonder whether his pen is plugged directly into the mains. His characters range from the somewhat strange to the outright deranged and the dialogue he puts into their mouths is dripping with that comical Texan drawl which makes even the crudest utterances sound like some bat-shit crazy poetry. Crude, violent and laugh-till-you-sh*t funny, I can’t think of a Lansdale book I haven’t enjoyed.
Lansdale’s strongest works, especially to those uninitiated into his foul-mouthed world of good ol’ boys, ball-busting action and gallows humour, are the series of books featuring Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. One is an ex-hippy draft dodger, the other is a gay black man with the fighting skills of John Rambo. Like a trailer-trash version of The Odd Couple, they drink, swear and brawl their way through the underbelly of East Texas life. The books are fast moving and full of thrills, but more importantly they are bloody well written. Lansdale’s gift is his ability to craft a thriller that is smart without being patronising, funny without stretching the realms of plausibility and exciting whilst still remaining inventive.
The author’s jaunts into horror and fantasy have proven equally successful. The Drive-In is frequently cited as one of the most deliriously-silly horror books of the past thirty years. His short story Bubba Ho-Tep features a 70 year old Elvis teaming up with a black, wheelchair-bound JFK to battle an Egyptian mummy that stalks a retirement home. The story was turned into a movie starring Bruce Campbell in 2002 and, despite a limited theatrical release, has garnered quite a cult following.
Dead in the West is one of Lansdale’s earlier works and although it is by no means his best novel, it is worth tracking down just to see how skilfully he melds two genres – pulp western and zombie horror. Fans of either genre will find Lansdale’s B-movie style tribute unputdownable. Of course, if you don’t like cowboys or zombies, you won’t find much to entertain you here.
The original version of the story was written in 1980 for pulp magazine “Eldritch Tales” then reworked for the 1986 release of the book. Lansdale states very plainly in his dedication that the book is a tribute to the pulp magazines of old, horror comics and B-movies. He acknowledges the low-brow nature of the content when he admits that the novel is not a book of “Big Thinks”. Instead, he recommends the reader imagine they are watching a late-night horror film on a stormy night.
The plot of Dead in the West is straightforward enough. The inhabitants of Mud Creek lynch an Indian shaman who then curses them with a zombie plague. The only man capable of saving the town is Reverend Jebidiah Mercer, a gun-toting preacher tormented by his past. Clichéd? Undoubtedly, but that doesn’t matter – Lansdale takes the clichés, chews them up and spits out something that takes the best aspects of westerns and zombie films.
Like all great B-movies, Dead in the West contains staggering amounts of blood and gore. The zombie horde munches their way through a good proportion of the townsfolk and the book’s bullet-strewn climax is similarly bespattered with chunks of flesh and steaming entrails. Reverend Mercer is a suitably brooding hero, dispensing righteous justice from the barrel of his Navy Colt. One gets the impression Lansdale was watching a lot of Clint Eastwood films as he sketched out the character. Not that this matters a jot. This book isn’t about original, detailed characterisation; it’s a Spaghetti Western that’s been invaded by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s not about clever plotting; it’s about gunslingers squaring up against flesh-eating zombies. It’s as subtle as a brick through the window and as sophisticated as getting your c*ck out at a dinner party.
And I love it.
Hereward L. M. Proops