Whispers Out of the Dust; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

And this concludes, for now, my look at the weird westerns of David J. West.

Low Res Scan: Whispers Out of the Dust: A Haunted Journey Through the Lost American West, David J. West, 2015.

Cover by Nathan Shumate

I wanted to like this anthology of weird western stories. It has the things I like: a series of linked stories, epigraphs opening each one, and each story purporting to be from a document. And it was obviously a work of love from West who even includes a map and purported photos of some of the stories’ location around the town St. Thomas at the center of the book and now beneath the waters of Lake Mead.

The stories take place between 1885 and 1938, and West presents them as a collection of documents he found, along with a toad statue, in a discarded trunk at a Mormon thrift store. And there are plenty of weird elements: ghosts, evil medicine men, liches, ghouls, giant Gila monsters, thunderbirds, haunted lost ruins, and spectral riders.

But I found most of the stories uninteresting to the extent I didn’t make any notes on individual titles.

Not all of the 18 stories are dull. A member of John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River party makes some disturbing discoveries in “Gods of the Old Land”. I’ve already reviewed “Right Hand Man” which features Porter Rockwell.  “The Thing in the Root Cellar” is about a household servant who tries to warn his employers of a menace lurking there. “Black Jack’s Last Ride” is about the doom that overtakes an outlaw for a heinous crime committed long ago.  A mysterious woman a man meets in a saloon turns out to be a harbinger of death in “A Rose for Dolly”.  The final story, “Bury Me Deep”, concerns activities around a notorious local man’s grave and his daughter showing up to request a favor of the narrator. She’s an interesting enough character that I’d like to see her in another story. 

The parallax on this one is provided by The Horror Review.

Helldorado and Other Tales of the Weird West

It’s the final – for now – book of the Dark Trails Saga.

Low Res Scan: Helldorado and Other Tales of the Weird West, David J. West, 2021.

Cover by Anna Stansfield

Helldorado” is a sequel to the first three novels of the Dark Trails Saga. Porter Rockwell is reunited with Roxy Lejune, Brigham Young’s headstrong, runaway daughter and her man, Quincy Cthubert Jackson as they travel to California after the events of You Only Hang Once. It’s something of a short novel taking up almost a third of the collection, and has lots of gunplay and death. Rockwell is summoned by a friend to get  involved in a classic western conflict – a landwar. His friend, Havenbrook, has actually found one of those lost Spanish gold mines that this series is so full of. The trouble is another man, Carswell, wants it to. And Mormon piety and comradeship isn’t going to stop Carswell from hiring lots of gunfighters to get his way. This one mostly plays out like a regular western with the introduction of a supernatural element fairly late. And the shadow of the Mountain Meadows Massacre on Rockwell’s reputation is also a factor

West puts introductory notes at the beginning of the stories, and the one for “Bad Medicine” explains it serves as an epilogue for the Rockwell novel Let Sleeping Gods Lie. Since it was written for an anthology of straight westerns, the weird elements of that novel are very obliquely allued to. The story is based on a real historical event: a shooting competition between Rockwell (aka James Brown) in this California mining camp and a man named Stewart. At stake is a $1,000.

Sundowners” has Rockwell far afield from his usual range. He’s in Mexico to deliver a package, but – against warnings – he stops for the night at a town whose inhabitants lock themselves in every evening. Not that that protects them from rampaging insanity. Rockwell decides the problem just may be a sacred relic in the town’s mission

The Tears of Nephi” is a steampunk Porter Rockwell story, but I don’t think it quite works plotwise. It’s not the steampunk elements at fault – West does a good job with Rockwell and steampunk in his #Savant series. It’s the motives behind the kidnapping of a blind girl who Rockwell, at the request of Brigham Young, wants rescued.

Under the Gun” put me a bit in mind of Dan Simmons Black Hills, David J. West. Both stories are weird westerns staring on the Custer Battlefield. Here a young Indian boy, Moon-Wolf, picks up a possessed revolver that speaks to him and wants to be called George. It also demands a lot of people being shot while conceding the boy will only have the gun until a greater warrior picks it up. Soon Moon-Wolf is renamed Man-Killer-Wolf by his tribe, and his uncle and Rockwell are determined to put a stop to the trail of bodies the boy and gun leave behind.

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Cold Slither and Other Horrors of the Weird West

Review: Cold Slither and Other Horrors of the Weird West, ed. David J. West, 2016. 

Cover by Anna Stansfield

You could call this, the fourth book in West’s Dark Trails Saga, the Porter Rockwell bestiary. West even provides an illustration, usually a petroglyph, for each story. And some of those beasts (jackelopes! Tumbleweeds!) are pretty audacious choices by West.

Cold Slither” is a long and very Robert E. Howard-type story. There’s a maiden to be sacrificed, a giant snake god, and lots of action. Porter Rockwell encounters a Ute shaman who is holding a ritual and keeping a sacred fire burning to keep the Blood Gods asleep. Rockwell isn’t keen on the shaman’s suggestion that he take over the duties. And other Indians want the Blood Gods back. The gods may have demanded human sacrifice, but they kept the white man at bay too. Naturally, Rockwell gets caught up in the battle to keep the snake god Coatlicue locked up. As he notes, “Sometimes the best you do in these situations is just survive.”

Rockwell battles the quintessential American monster, the thunderbird, in “Black Wings in the Moonlight”. He’s called in to take care of the critter which has already killed and eaten several people on the banks of the Mississippi. It’s another well-done action tale.

Soma for the Destroying Angels Soul” has zombies, escaped slaves, a patent medicine salesman, and a Haitian witch doctor. Rockwell comes across a town where people have been infected by some kind of fungus. He puts paid to the troublemaker in quite an unusual way.

Rolling in the Deep” takes place after a real incident in Rockwell’s life when he cut his hair – the source of his invulnerability to blade and bullet – to provide a wig for a widow who lost hers after a fever. Rockwell finds himself shanghaied and aboard the Dagon. And, yes, Captain Quinn does seem to have an affinity for a Lovecraftian creature.

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“The Late Shift”

This is last week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing. I nominated this one for discussion since I used to work the graveyard shift at a convenience store about the time this story is set.

Review: “The Late Shift”, Dennis Etchison, 1980.

This is a wonderfully creepy story full of Etchison’s keen eye for details of life in Southern California particularly the demimonde of the graveyard shift which this story concerns itself with, specifically in convenience stores.

The story opens with the protagonist, Macklin, and his friends en route after leaving a midnight screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Massacre (“Who will survive and what will be left of them?”).   

Somebody comes up with the idea of stopping at Stop ‘N Start, a convenience store. Entering it, the first thing they hear is the clerk arguing with a customer who wants a specific box of film. All the clerk says is “Please, please, sorry, thank you”. Macklin and friends pick up their items and head for checkout. 

One of the men, Whitey (who, it turns out, is an American Indian), points the clerk out to Macklin. It’s Juano, a waiter at a Mexican restaurant they frequent. “How’s it going, man?” asks Whitey of Juano. “Thank You” is the reply. Macklin notices the milk he’s picked up is sour and tells Juano not to ring it up. “Sorry” is Juano’s reply who sounds like he’s dazed sleepwalker.  Whitey asks about one of his favorite dishes over at the Mexican restaurant. Juano says nothing.  A radio in the store starts playing The Doors’ “Light My Fire” whose lyrics will show up at several points in the story. 

Macklin asks Juano if he remembers him. No response. Juano just turns about, drags his feet and eventually says  “Sorry. Please.” Disgusted and because the convenience store is creeping them out, Macklin and Whitey throw some money down, take their stuff, and leave. But, at the door, Whitey turns around and glares at the building. Whitey says he’s coming back at the store’s shift change since he’s owed 20 dollars in change. Through the door, they can hear Juano say “Please. Sorry. Thank you.” 

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“The Lake”

This was last week’s subjection of discussion over at LibraryThing’s Weird Tradition group.

Review: “The Lake”, Ray Bradbury, 1944.

Cover by Richard Powers

The first part of the story is the narrator, a twelve-year old boy, at the beach at Lake Bluff, Illinois. (Yes, this is partially another Bradbury tale of childhood which he often depicts as the summer of life.)

There’s an air of passage and conclusion about. The merry-go-round is not turning; the concession stands are closed; the crowds are gone since summer is over, and the beach is nearly empty. There are a few other kids about.

It’s also sort of a last day for the narrator who is at the beach with his mother. The family is moving to California in the morning.

The narrator asks his mother to play further up the beach. Going there, we hear about the boy’s first love, Tally. She drowned in the lake the previous May, her body never found. The narrator thinks of her.

Before he returns to his mother, he performs an old ritual. He builds half a sandcastle. Tally used to finish the other half. He whispers her name in the wind.

(Spoilers ahead)

The next part of the story is the narrator ten years later, returning to Lake Bluff with his new wife Margaret. They are on their honeymoon and stay in town for two weeks. 

He says something peculiar: “I thought I loved Margaret well. At least I thought I did.” 

On one of the last days he’s there, he goes to the beach.

It’s late in the season though not as late as in the first scene. 

In sort of psychic timeslip, he feels twelve again and sees his mother on the beach. He does not mention this to Margaret.

He sees a lifeguard bring something out of the water. He tells Margaret to stay put and walks toward the lifeguard. 

The lifeguard carries a bundled body and tells the narrator it’s a strange thing. This body has been underwater 10 years. There’s no record of any unrecovered drowning victims in the lake – except Tally’s. 

The narrator asks to see the body. He talks about how we all change, grow – except the dead.  Dead children remain small.

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“Lorelei of the Red Mist”

This is kind of this week’s piece of weird fiction – several months ago. But I finally located the relevant volume in the numerous boxes of books from my “recent” move.

Review: “Lorelei of the Red Mist”, Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett, 1946, 1958.

Cover by Richard Powers

 The Science Fiction Encyclopedia says this story was first published in 1946 in Planet Stories and revised in 1953 and that seems the version I read. Supposedly, Bradbury finished this short novel for Brackett, and it dates from their first decade as published writers.

I suspect Brackett is the one, given her history of writing in multiple genres, for making this a mix of crime story, western, and historical tale. Given their later stories (in Brackett’s case I’m mostly basing this on the Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry for her) on a romantic Mars, it’s hard to say where all the startling, romantic (and, at times, erotic) decadent details of this version of Venus come from. 

The story starts out as a combination of crime story and western as hero Hugh Starke, a robber, is fleeing the agents of the Terra-Venus Mines, Incorporated after a heist. The western element comes as he draws near to the mysterious Mountains of White Cloud on Venus. His ship crashes there with a million credits of gold. 

He wakes up and knows he is dying. He sees a woman on a fur covered chair watching him. Her skin is very white, her dusted nipples are “pale-green”, and her hair and eyes are “sea-green”.  She tells him he is dying, but that he won’t die. He will reawaken in a new body and to not be afraid and let her mind guide him. 

He falls unconscious and then, when awakening, sees an image of the woman in his mind.  Again, she tells him he will not die but will awaken in a strange body and not to be afraid. He is laying on a bed of dirty straw. And he does have a new body, tall, muscular one quite unlike his original one which was stunted by malnutrition when young. He is glad to see it is at least a human body. Thus Bradbury and Brackett begin an interesting treatment of the bodyswitching theme. Though he curses the woman he saw, he has to admit he got the best of the trade. 

The room has lots of weapons on the wall and a fire in a fireplace. There are two men in the room with him. This is a disorienting scene for the reader as well as Starke as we learn more about them. One is a giant of a man, a superb physical specimen, very tall, and wearing only a leather kilt. He is scarred across the eyes and obviously blind. Starke knows that he was once a man who enjoyed life, women, and song and now feels the cruelty of pain and uselessness. The other is a “swamp-edger”, an albino with a harp. 

Outside the room are the sounds of battle. Then Starke realizes that he has a collar around his neck (he’s been chained before and served time in prison) and is chained to the floor. He has worn the collar long enough for it to gall his skin. A messenger from someone named Beudag says that they are still holding the Gate though the enemy has driven them back. 

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You Only Hang Once

Review: You Only Hang Once, David J. West, 2022. 

Cover by Anna Stansfield

Things aren’t looking good for Porter Rockwell and his friend Quincy Jackson at the beginning of this novel.

The girl Emily was dragged over a cliff and into the Colorado River by Mala Cosa’s dead body at the end of Crazy Horses, and Territorial Marshal Shaw is going to use the lack of her exculpatory testimony and other evidence he’s forged, suborned, or misinterpreted to send Rockwell and Jackson to the gallows.

And Mormon leader Brigham Young, who comes off a bit prissy here, isn’t going to intervene for church protector Rockwell. The US government is still investigating the Mountain Meadow Massacre, and Young doesn’t want any impression about that the church sanctions murder. So the importuning of his daughter, aka Roxy Lejune, goes for naught.

By this time, the relationship between Roxy and Quincy has firmed up into true love for each other, and Roxy takes steps to bust Quincy out of jail, and Rockwell manages his own escape.

Hearing rumors of a new criminal gang in the area, he heads for Montezuma City, the ruins of an ancient civilization of giant white men. There he’ll meet criminal mastermind Iblis and Emily, who isn’t dead after all.

In Montezuma City, Rockwell will encounter earthquakes, the Haunter of the Abyss, and make new allies.

This one is probably my least favorite of the three Dark Trails Saga novels. Perhaps that’s because it’s the shortest, and the escape scenes didn’t interest me as much. Again, though, West provides some good characters, and it was nice to see the development of Roxy’s and Quincy’s relationship.

Additional Thoughts with Spoilers

The backstory, delivered by Iblis, of Montezuma City evidently was inspired by a bit of Mormon folklore, specifically the Gadiantons. West also says it was inspired by Robert E. Howard’s El Borak (which I’m not familiar with) and the claims by one Cyclone Covey of a “Roman Jewish colony in America”.

Crazy Horses

Review: Crazy Horses, David J. West, 2017. 

Cover by Anna Stansfield

There’s a lot less lead thrown about in this sequel to Scavengers, but I liked it more.

It’s a pursuit story with Porter Rockwell and friends Roxy Lejune and Quincy Jackson both the pursuers and pursued.

At the end of Scavengers, Rockwell’s blood brother Chief Redbone showed up asking for Rockwell’s help after Mexican slaver Matamoros, who survived the carnage at the lost Spanish gold mine, kidnapped Redbone’s daughter.

That carnage produced 63 missing people in the Thorn massacre, and Territorial Marshall Brody Shaw thinks Rockwell had something to do with that. Brody wants to see Rockwell hang, and, as we see, he’s not above forging evidence to produce a conviction. Shaw’s hatred of Rockwell goes back to New York State when Mormon founder Joseph Smith stole Shaw’s flock away.

So, Rockwell and friends are pursued by Shaw as they pursue Matamoros through the desert around the Colorado River. They’ll encounter some of the women Rockwell freed from Matamoros in Scavengers after the slaver killed their husbands and raped them. One girl, Emily, stows away with the Rockwell party as they travel down the Colorado to follow Matamoros.

There’s a lot to like here. There is the Uninvited, a vampiric entity who appears as an old man seeking camp fires, the final showdown between Rockwell and Matamoros, and the bloodbath at the lair of Mala Cosa. He’s a sorcerer Matamoros needs to redeem himself with, and the price of redemption is Redbone’s daughter.

This one ends on a grim note.

Scavengers

Review: Scavengers, David J. West, 2017. 

Cover by Nathan Shumate and TheChunkyDesigner

This is the first book in West’s Dark Trails Saga of weird westerns featuring, of course, Porter Rockwell. 

If you want a western with plenty of lead being slung about, this one’s for you.

It starts out with Marshall Rockwell pursuing Ferdie McGurdie, a horse (and pie) thief. It seems it’s not just the law that wants McGurdie but also the Cottrell gang and the strange German Reverend Mort who has allied himself with US Cavalry Captain Thorn. McGurdie managed to get the secret of a lost and reputedly haunted Spanish gold mine from an Indian shaman.

The Cottrell gang gets the drop on Rockwell and stakes him out to die in the desert sun with a defector from their gang, Quincy Cuthbert Jackson. (Rockwell spends a fair amount of this novel either disarmed or in captivity.) They are rescued by the very attractive Roxy Lejeune, possessor of what seems to be a cursed – but very luck for her – faro deck.

Rockwell isn’t very believing of McGurdie’s tale when he catches up to the fugitive, but he comes around eventually. If nothing else, he’s bringing the Cottrell gang in for killing his horse and leaving him to die. Quincy and Roxy, very interested in the tale of treasure, join him.

By novel’s end, the scavengers after that treasure will include a Mexican slaver gang, very annoyed Indians, Thorn’s crew, and the Cottrells. It’s an unsentimental story of brutality and survival.

The action is almost non-stop and it’s well-done, but the novel’s best feature is that interplay between Roxy, Rockwell, and Lejeune. It’s clear that Roxy is hiding some secret about her identity. Quincy is a black man and former member of the US Colored Troops, educated with a big vocabulary he likes to show off and resentful of any insinuation that he, always a free man, was ever a slave. Thrown together in adversity and saving each other’s lives, Roxy and Quincy have a tempestuous relationship between her secrets and the problems of a black man and beautiful white woman contemplating a life together.

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Six-Gun Serenade

Several reviews of weird westerns from David J. West are coming up.

Given their stats, my weird western reviews are about as useful as a lame mule dying of thirst in the desert. They don’t look capable of carrying their weight much longer. I’m tempted to put a bullet through their head. We’ll see if water shows up.

Review: Six-Gun Serenade, David J. West, 2017.

Cover by Go On Write

This is a teaser anthology with just two stories and an excerpt from a West novel which I’ll be covering in the future.

In “Six-Gun Serenade” it’s 1868 in the border of the Wyoming and Utah Territories, and chemistry teacher Amsa Davison finds himself playing host to some unsavory men in his house.

Led by Caleb Landforth, an Omar Khayyám spouting man who claims to also be a spiritualist, they are on the trail of treasure: a lost Spanish gold mine abandoned when the native slave labor rebelled and killed the Spanish there. They are confident they’ll find the mine but need Davison to assay any gold taken.

Meeting the rest of Landforth’s crew, Davison finds there even worst bad men when they expect apart from the cook and a couple of others. Then there’s Warner, a long-haired gunfighter with the steel blue eyes of a natural killer. It doesn’t take long, of course, for it to be revealed that Warner is none other than Porter Rockwell, a favorite character of West’s for his weird westerns.

And there is a bit of weirdness here since Landforth really does have psychic powers which lead him to the mine. But it’s also no surprise that Landforth has decided that he won’t need Davison for long.

It’s a engaging story that doesn’t hang around long enough to wear out it’s welcome, but I can’t say it’s particularly memorable.

The Money Light” was supposed to be included in West’s collection of linked stories, Whispers Out of the Dust, but ended up not being included for length reasons.

It’s a pleasant enough ghost story full of what I call faux Western dialogue – laconic and humorous, but I doubt people in the real American West talked that way.

Things start out with protagonist Saul Reynolds killing, in a card game, the Ferguson brothers who accuse him of cheating. (Spooner, Reynold’s friend, was the one actually cheating.) Given their reputation, the town is certainly not sorry to see the Fergusons dead, and Reynolds goes with the Ferguson bodies to their mother’s house. 

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