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Book Review – Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West

Edited by John Joseph Adams
Published by Titan Books

This anthology of twenty-three stories has tales that mix the Old West with fantastical elements; each one has the name, author and the location/year (such as East Texas, 1880, or Colorado Territory, 1868). As is usual with anthologies, the selection is wide and the quality varies, but the overall level is high and the diversity of material is very interesting.

Appropriately, the first story is The Red-Headed Dead (a Reverend Jebediah Mercer tale) by Joe R Lansdale (who the editor claims helped define the genre with the Rev. Mercer novel, Dead In The West, back in 1986), in which Rev. Mercer (who believes that God sends him to do this work) comes across a creature who had been contained by an iron bar with Latin writing on, a creature that is a progeny of Judas …

The Old Man And His Gold Gun From Space by Ben H Winters is about two unsuccessful prospectors who receive a visit from an old man who claims he is from the dark side of Neptune and has a proposition for them, and a gun that finds gold – an intriguing tale with a nice twist. Hellfire On The High Frontier by David Farland concerns Morgan Grey and the mission given him by The Stranger, to find and kill a clockwork gambler, a former soldier called Hellfire, who is killing people every four months. Clockworks are hard to kill, deadly accurate, and Hellfire is a Sharp model, the top of the line, leading to a trip on an airship to High Frontier – a magical place, nestled in the clouds, only reachable at sunset, a city of silver spires and coloured glass windows – and a strangely wistful story.

The Hell-bound Stagecoach by Mike Resnick is about four passengers on a stagecoach who all realise that they are dead, but force the driver (who calls himself Scratch, and has horns on his head) to alter their fate. Stingers And Strangers by Seanan McGuire see Jonathan Healy, a college professor type, and Frances Brom, who looks like a farmhand, dealing with Apraxis wasps (the size of a show with human intelligence), who steal the memories of the hosts they kill and infect, and there is a swarm in Colorado, which can only mean that there is something even nastier out there scaring the wasps, in a world with Aeslin mice (who can talk) and dragon princesses …

Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger by Charles Yu is a story with an ambiguous ending about a narrator who seems to be an amazing gunslinger without any of the requisite skills. It does have a great line in it: ‘Can I say de facto in this kind of story?’ Holy Jingle (A Mad Amos Malone Tale) by Alan Dean Foster is about the worldly, travelled, well read and scruffy Amos Malone and his decision to help someone based on a Chinese prostitute keeping someone captive who can only say ‘Holy Jingle’, which is a very interesting tale and I can see why Foster has written so many stories about the character.

The Man With No Heart by Beth Revis involves Ray Malcolm and his search for meaning, which leads to mechanical spiders and Big Canyon and the birthplace of the four worlds … Wrecking Party by Alastair Reynolds is an interesting twist on the perils of technology, which starts with a man wrecking a horseless carriage, links to wrecking parties (exhibitions of trains being wrecked for money) and ‘machine intelligences’. Hell From The East by Hugh Howey is an odd tale about a soldier going mad and the investigation into what looks like an Arapaho sun hut.

Second Hand (A Card Sharp Story) by Rajan Khana is a nice little tale with an interesting premise for the magical power of playing cards – people who are Card Sharps because of the power of the Deck and the Cards and the magic that can be done with them (defensive/offensive power, healing, heightening senses). Alvin And The Apple Tree (A Tale Of Alvin Maker) by Orson Scott Card is the weirdest (and not in a good way) of the bunch, about Christian people feeling guilty all the time due to a man calling himself John Appleseed creating apples that makes them that way. Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle by Elizabeth Bear is a strange story which feels like the first chapter in a book – there’s no real ending or point, and there’s only a hint of steampunk to suggest ‘Weird West’.

Strong Medicine by Tad Williams was one of my favourites, involving a character called Custos protecting the town of Medicine Dance on Midsummer’s Day every 39 years due to the fact that it sits ‘very lightly in time’ – the last time the trouble happened, it brought snow and mammoths and dire wolves. This time, the mesa is replaced with an ocean and then the dinosaurs arrive … Red Dreams by Jonathan Maberry is about McCall, the only survivor of a massacre of 16 of his men and 34 Cheyenne, who then sees the ghost of Walking Bear, the man he’d been hunting and had just killed. An interesting meditation on death and the afterlife.

Bamboozled by Kelley Armstrong was another of my favourites, about Lilly and Nate who lead a group that plays a scam in towns to lure in a mark to rob. However, this is a cover for Lily and Nate’s other work: bounty on demons, witches, vampires, werewolves … Bamboozled was a good story, good characters, with turns well hidden, and I would read more adventures of Lilly and Nate, supernatural bounty hunters. Another story that I enjoyed so much that I would read more of was Sundown by Tobias S Buckell, about Willie Kennard, a ‘negro marshal’, and Frederick Douglas (a black abolitionist), appointed marshal by President Hayes to investigate the disappearance of an army airship sent to Alaska, last seen at a crater, full of space creatures that Kennard had been tracking and who are now coming to America and must be stopped …

La Madre Del Oro by Jeffrey Ford is a slender tale with little substance about a posse in New Mexico going out to apprehend George Slattern, aka Bastard George, for murder and cannibalism, heading into blisteringly hot Trail of Death where the posse ends up in the goldmine of the title and things go bad. What I Assume You Shall Assume by Ken Liu is about Amos Tuner and his horse Mustard trailing through a forest and Yun, a Hakka girl from Taiping but now a gold miner with a legal claim to a mine, but who has been attacked and now has to defend herself with her ability to work magic of words on paper, with the help of Amos.

The Devil’s Jack (A Story Of The Devil’s West) by Laura Anne Gilman is a strange tale about a man who is bound to the devil but trying to avoid him, helping out a town disrupted by a magician and demons who live nearby, but told in a slightly elliptical way. A more straightforward and rip-roaring adventure is The Golden Age by Walter Jon Williams, which is romp that seems to be about the beginnings of pulp heroes and villains in the west, with a former English sailor leading a gang of criminals stealing gold from miners being stopped by a costumed vigilante (who calls himself the Condor), so he becomes a pirate on a steamboat on the Delta and calls himself the Commodore, which seems to be the start of other colourful characters appearing on the scene: the Haunt, the Highwayman, the Sagamore [an Indian], the Masked Hidalgo [Mexican], Shanghai Susie [Chinese], Aero Lad, the Mad Emperor. But things turn dark after a while with the arrival of Professor Mitternacht, killing a third of San Francisco and claiming it for the Austrian Empire

My absolute favourite story in the book was Neversleeps by Fred Van Lente, which is set 120 years after ‘The Awakening’: the world of spirits and spells returned to the world after the Age of Reason, and the world is completely different. Trains are pulled by dragons, the most wanted Science Criminal by the Bureau of Animist Affairs is Nicola Tesla, great grandniece of Nikola Tesla, who was burned at the stake for not recanting Science, unlike Edison, who did recant to save his own life and then went onto found White City, which is run by atomists to create things that can fight back against the scriveners and diviners and necromancers of the governments who want to stay in power, such as the Chrysalis Clockwork, a special suit that is immune to magic, currently in the possession of Simon Leslie, a former Pinkerton agent (nicknamed the Neversleeps), who is trying to save Nicola Tesla. It’s a cracking, well-told adventure, with lots of great details and a fantastic alternate universe, and it’s only the start of the rebellion of science against magic: more now, please.

Neversleeps would have been the best way to finish the anthology, but there is a very short epilogue, Dead Man’s Hand by Christie Yant, which is four variations of the Bill Hickock story about his death, which is about the association with the hand of cards he had when he was killed becoming called Dead Man’s Hand. I enjoyed this collection – the combination of western ideals with magical/supernatural/fantastical is a potent one that brings about some very interesting results. There are some duffers in the mix, but that’s inevitable; however, when there are stories that leave you wanting more, you can consider that a success.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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