398 pages, QW Publishers
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
The Weird West is a fantasy sub-genre that is sadly overlooked. We've seen countless incarnations of the Tolkien-inspired sword and sorcery kingdoms. In the past few years, the paranormal romance bubble has swollen to such vast proportions that the fact it hasn't yet burst is a source of wonder to many of us. Although there have been some minor forays into the Weird West such as the roleplaying game “Deadlands” or B-movie classics such as “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula” or “The Valley of Gwangi”, the general public didn't really seem to warm to the concept. However, the huge popularity of the videogame “Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare” (cowboys versus zombies) and the recent movie adaptation of comic book “Cowboys and Aliens” is an indication that folks are beginning to come round to the notion of mashing horror, fantasy or science fiction with the mythology of the old west.
“Auraria” is the latest addition to the steadily growing canon of work that can be described as “Weird Western”. Written by Tim Westover, whose previous books were written in Esperanto (stop laughing at the back, it is a real language!), “Auraria” isn't your prototypical Western story. There are no gunslingers or bandits. Hardly any moonshine whiskey is drunk (though some unfortunate characters in the story manage to get themselves completely smasherooed by consuming a concentrated blast of real moonshine) and virtually no tobacco is spat. Instead, Westover weaves a very strange, often rambling narrative about Auraria, a Georgia town which sprang up during the gold rush but didn't exactly prosper or recover from gold rush fever.
James Holtzclaw, the novel's protagonist, is sent to the isolated community by his boss, Hiram Shadburn, with a case full of money and the instructions to buy up as much land as possible. Shadburn, you see, has designs upon the town but he isn't the least bit interested in the gold which lies beneath it. Having grown up in Auraria, he's seen far too much time and effort wasted in the pursuit of the town's elusive treasure. Instead, he plans to build a great dam with which the valley can be flooded. Once the valley is submerged beneath the newly-formed lake, Shadburn intends to build a holiday destination which will bring real money to the area.
Holtzclaw's task isn't as easy as it would first seem. The town and the outlying areas are populated with a vast array of eccentric characters and strange places. The town's saloon has a piano-playing poltergeist called Mr Bad Thing. The numerous freshwater springs are tended to by a mischievous spirit called Princess Trahlyta who is understandably wary of Holtzclaw's activities. There's an ice-shed from which a blizzard perpetually blows and beneath the mountain lives a massive, invincible terrapin with a fondness for telling long-winded stories. Shadburn's ambitions to transform the area don't really sit comfortably with its supernatural elements. Though one might expect the local spirits to wreak brutal, bloody revenge on the capitalist newcomers, “Auraria” is a much more playful novel. Vengeful spirits in a horror novel would get the walls of the hotel to drip with blood but Westover's spirits instead cause showers of peaches to fall on the newly-built resort. It's precisely this sort of whimsical, playful tone which makes “Auraria” stand out. At times I was reminded of Susanna Clarke's “Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell” (and anything which reminds me of that fantastic book is definitely doing something right) whilst on other occasions (particularly those involving the semi-sentient sheep-fruit) I felt we were firmly in Terry Pratchett territory.
Unfortunately, the novel's lighthearted, quaint character comes at a slight cost. “Auraria” isn't a particularly long novel, but there are times when it feels like one. Westover's narrative ambles along at a very leisurely pace, perhaps too leisurely for some readers. Whilst I adored the charming, often bizarre details which are liberally scattered through the novel, I couldn't help but feel that it was lacking in narrative drive. It was only towards the end of the book when Shadburn's dam is threatened, not by the direct actions of the spirits but by the greed of the resort's guests, that I felt the novel was finally going somewhere. This is, of course, just a personal opinion and I'm sure that many readers will thoroughly enjoy the story's gentle, meandering pace.
“Auraria” is released on the 10th July and those looking for a charming, playful read will do well to check it out. It might lack the directness that one might expect, but Westover's English language debut is beautifully written and manages to bring to life the rich folklore of the Appalachians.
Hereward L.M. Proops