02 August 2005

Dead in the West by Joe R. Lansdale

Below is the latest in an ongoing series of guest reviews. Our reviewer this time is Jon Hansen, and this is, he says, the first review he's written since writing a fifth-grade book report on Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane.


Dead in the West by Joe R. Lansdale
a guest review by Jon Hansen


Dead in the West is Joe R. Lansdale's genre-blending "Zombie Western," the literary equivalent of George Romero making a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Dead in the West first came out in 1986; this 2005 edition from Night Shade Books apparently is a revision. How it differs from the original release, I cannot say, except the intro calls the first "a tribute to the pulps, especially Weird Tales," and this new edition adds on homages to comics like Jonah Hex and horror movie classics like Billy the Kid versus Dracula. Which suggests plenty of blood, guts, the undead, and possibly some sex, in other words.

And in this, Dead in the West does not disappoint. The plot is straightforward: the Reverend Jebediah Mercer, a traveling preacher of the Old West, arrives in the East Texas town of Mud Creek, hoping to redeem himself of his sins, only to discover the little town has sins of its own. Fortunately, our hero isn't a weak-kneed man of the cloth, but a gunslinger, "bringing the sword to the infidels -- or a gun." And a good thing, because before too long, zombies start popping up and the fun begins.

The book picks up many of the same traditions of both genres: the town is populated with many standard Western characters but with a horror movie slant: the town doctor, the closest thing to a scientist, and his attractive daughter/assistant; the sheriff, too weak to do what the hero must; and the town roughneck, responsible for the fate that meets the town. There's even a boy sidekick.

The explanation for the undead uprising are found in a Weird Tales pulp staple: the Necronomicon, and other tomes of unhealthy lore (curiously, Lansdale decides not to include Nameless Cults, fellow Texan Robert E. Howard's contribution to the forbidden book category; bit of an oversight to me). The zombies operate in true Romero fashion by spreading their condition by biting their victims, bursting into flames in direct sunlight, and can only be killed by a gunshot to the head. And true to the genre, the book features a last stand against the undead hordes. The two influences blend well together.

But all this is on the surface. With a book about a preacher battling zombies, the reader might naturally expect a certain emphasis on death and resurrection. But Dead in the West focuses much more on sin and redemption. Reverend Mercer's sins weigh heavily on him. As a gunslinger he had killed many men over the years, something that doesn't trouble him greatly (as befits a man of action). But the crime of incest also hangs over him, haunting him with dark dreams. Finally he repents and declares that Mud Creek will be his test of salvation. By contrast, the townsfolk do not own up to their collective sin, but instead blame each other for it. But God as portrayed here is a God of the Old Testament: punishments of fire and blood, and an eye for eye. As a result, their fate is less promising.

All in all, Dead in the West is a thrilling read, true to its pulp origins, but with a little more to it than a basic battle-the-undead tale. Recommended to fans of both westerns and zombies.

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