Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How The West Was Weird - Part 1

So today I'm going to talk a little bit about a book that just came out from Pulpwork Press called "How the West Was Weird". I'm intimately familiar with this book because I was asked to contribute a story for it last year while it was being put together. I agreed to do just that, but last year was an unfortunate one for me regarding my writing, and I dropped the ball. The story I had in mind would have fit the book perfectly, I think, and I may still do something with it at some point down the line as either a short comic or as an addition to a potential sequel to "How the West Was Weird". But enough about me. Let's talk about the book itself.

"How the West Was Weird" is a collection of nine short stories with a western theme that are, in a word, weird. The coordinator/editor of the book (and a friend of mine), Mr. Russ Anderson, has put together a fabulous collection of yarns. Some of the stories have a horror bent to them, and some of them lean towards the pulpier side of things, but each of the stories is infinitely entertaining. The image you're looking at above is the cover of the book, and was done by comic artist Jim Rugg. I love looking at the cover, and the image above hardly does the real thing justice. The smooth, vibrant colors and sharp lines with their heavy hatching are best experienced while holding the book in your hands. The composition is genius in its simplicity, with a lone gunmen staring down a decidedly alien aggressor. The barren landscape and the burning sun above it frames the scene perfectly - and even the sparse lettering of the title works wonders, with the ghostly, seemingly heat-washed words leading to the stark, in-your-face WEIRD directly below. You know what this book is all about before you ever crack it open.

But you should crack it open, because the stories within are a delight. Reviewing each of them would make this one of the longest blog posts I've ever done, so what I've decided to do is make this "How the West Was Weird Week" at my blog, and break up my reviews into multiple posts. The first story done for the book is entitled "Camazotz" by Josh Reynolds. Remember in my previous post when I mentioned Aztec vampires gorging themselves on a Mexican village? You'll find all that and more in this story. It starts off with a confrontation between two men in a sweltering cantina. One is calm and composed and the other is haggard and distressed, and one of them doesn't leave the cantina alive. The meeting between the two men is over a mysterious golden mask the distressed man went through hell to acquire. But the unique thing about this mask, despite its appearance, is that it's still afixed to the ancient, rotting corpse of the last person to wear it. The entire time you're reading the story you're itching to find out what the face underneath the mask will reveal, and when it finally does happen there's no disappointment... except perhaps for the poor sucker that pulled it away. Reynolds masterfully spins his tale, keeping it tense and taut throughout, and despite the brevity of the story it is one killer opener.

The second story is entitled "Wyrm Over Diablo" by Joel Jenkins. The story begins just as "Camazotz" did, with a tense confrontation between two people sitting at a table, only this one takes place in the dining car of a passenger train hurtling toward its doom. This tale is pulp at its finest as the main character, a brooding, sharpshooting Indian known as Lone Crow struggles against supernatural forces to save not only his lady love, but the entire complement of passengers on the train. Joel brilliantly sweeps us along at a frantic pace as Lone Crow races from car to car in an effort to bring the nefarious plans of the antagonists - not to mention the speeding train - to a halt, and his descriptions of the massive, potentially world-devouring Wyrm are so foreboding that it sends shivers down your spine. Lone Crow is a practical, refreshing sort of hero, unconcerned with what people think of his choices or actions. Despite the heavy reliance on supernatural elements, the story is relatable because the character of Lone Crow grounds the story with his matter-of-fact statements and penchant for punching, shooting or blowing up anything that gets in his way. Lone Crow is a hero you can get behind, and the story shines because of it.

The third story is entitled "Space Miners" by Ian Taylor. The title alone made me straighten in my chair as I sat down to read it. The story takes place in the distant future, in a desolate field of meteorites somewhere out in the depths of space. But despite the outlandish time and setting, the story Ian crafts has even more of a western flavor than the two stories preceeding it. A unit of miners comes across a ship rustling valuable meteorites from their field. The miners capture the ship, and discover the inhabitants are three alien beings known as Ala'rai. The miners capture the rustlers, and hoping to avoid any additional trouble give the three ornery aliens the option to turn tail and run, but the situation immediately takes a turn for the worse when the lead Ala'rai tells them that his father, a particularly menacing and notorious Ala'rai with a taste for human flesh called Tommy Khan, will be coming to spring them. It doesn't take long for the lead Ala'rai's prediction to come to fruition, and the resulting gunfight between the aliens and the humans is the perfect climax to the story. Ian also does a great job of introducing subtle details into his tale.
The speech the characters use has subtle hints of the old west, and the main character even sports a Stetson. Though the miners are all intelligent, extensively educated men that would normally rely on their brains to solve problems, there's something about doing work on a desolate rock in the middle of space that brings the cowboy out in them, and the final imagery Ian uses to highlight this fact worked perfectly.

So that's all for this installment. Tomorrow I'll tackle three more of the stories included in the book, and if you like what you're hearing even a little bit I hope you'll give it a try.

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