Monday, July 12, 2010

Deadman's Road by Joe R. Lansdale (Reverend Jedidiah Mercer collection)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission.

This collection from "champion mojo storyteller" Joe R. Lansdale gathers all his stories to date featuring his cult-favorite character Reverend Jedidiah Mercer, including the complete novel featuring his debut appearance, Dead in the West. This limited edition hardcover from Subterranean Press also offers evocative cover art from Timothy Truman and over 20 interior illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne.

Dead in the West was, to my knowledge, the first zombie Western. Lansdale wrote it back in 1986 as a tribute to the kind of entertainment he grew up enjoying, like EC Comics and cross-genre B-movies like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (both real movies, I assure you).

Reverend Jedidiah Mercer is a man of God ... sort of. He hasn't exactly been following the straight and narrow path lately, spending a good portion of his collection on whiskey. But arriving in Mud Creek changes things a bit. After an unmistakable sign from above, in addition to some soul searching of his own, the Reverend decides to get back on the right track the next Saturday, when he'll be hosting a tent revival -- if he can resist the temptations coming his way.

But what's a man supposed to do when that's the week the dead start rising from their graves? Kick some undead hind-tail, that's what! Dead in the West takes no time in getting started: the first death occurs on the fourth page. From there on, we are treated to a thorough character study combined with a thrill ride. Why the dead chose this week to resurrect themselves, and what kind of unsavory temptations may get in the way of the Reverend's redemption, are just two of the questions answered in this exciting short novel with more than its fair share of cowboys smashing brains.

This cross of horror and Western does justice to both. And yet, Dead in the West remains purely a Lansdalean effort, with the same level of horror, humor, and down-home realism that has made him so popular among other writers as well as his rabid cult of fans (in particular, his ability to frighten and amuse simultaneously while delivering folksy homilies).

Also included in Deadman's Road are two stories, the titular "Deadman's Road" and "The Gentlemen's Hotel," previously collected in The Shadows, Kith & Kin), the previously uncollected "The Crawling Sky" (from the terrific anthology Son of Retro Pulp Tales), and a brand-new short, "The Dark Down There."

"Deadman's Road" has Reverend Mercer confronting a ghoul, and "The Gentleman's Hotel" involves werewolves. "The Crawling Sky" concerns a caged lunatic, a house with "haints," a magic book, and a man-eating Shmoo. "The Dark Down There" finds the Reverend meeting up with an obese woman named Flower and a mine that is loaded with silver and populated by kobolds (goblins). Jedidiah and Flower form a partnership since fear is unlikely to overtake both of them at the same time, and go up to the mine to see what they can see. The story ends on a high point, an unexpected result in these stories.

Mercer is a wholly original character with his own set of rules. He's not always nice, but he doesn't put up with nonsense (threaten to kill him and he'll not wait for you to follow through before acting in self-defense), and he often makes a lot of sense. These stories are some of the best work the weird Western genre has to offer, and it's good to see them all collected in a single volume with Deadman's Road.

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