Review: “.220 Swift”, Karl Edward Wagner, 1980.
Yes, it’s a story named after a rifle cartridge. It’s got guns and a monstrous narrative with literary DNA from Milton and Machen, Lovecraft and Greek myth, and a substantial bit of North Carolina folklore. I did not fact check for the existence of cited works, but the Dark Crusade Podcast has, and they do exist.
Our story starts with Morris Kenlaw, a rather obnoxious archaeologist seeking out, in the mountains of North Carolina, evidence of early Spanish mining. As he wedges his bulk down a hole which local Dell Warner was told by his father might be evidence of old diggings, he’s described in rather bestial terms.
Tagging along and helping Kenlaw with the locals is Eric Brandon, a folklore student collecting materials for his master’s dissertation. He’s also an albino and an orphan. He’s the one carrying the Model 70 Winchester chambered in .220 Swift, at the time the world’s fastest load and ideal for the varmint hunting Brandon likes in his summer stays in the area.
The Spanish actually did look for gold in North Carolina though they don’t seem to have found any. It wasn’t an absurd quest. Gold was eventually found in North Carolina.
Kenlaw gives up for the day, having found nothing, though Brandon is not convinced they were exploring old gopher holes but something older.
Kenlaw and Brandon retire for the day to Brandon’s rented cabin. But, while Kenlaw is looking for old Spanish mines, Brandon tells him of older legends, of little white people who mined the area long before Europeans showed up.
Brandon accepts a dinner invitation to Dell’s house because he likes his sister Ginger. Kenlaw tags along.
It’s a significant meeting.
Kenlaw spots an old Spanish helmet Ginger has been using as a flowerpot. An old-timer, Olin Reynolds, who is at the meal says the helmet came from an old cave used by some moonshiners he knew. Kenlaw gets Olin to agree to take him to the cave, and Brandon presses him to go along.
Ginger talks to Brandon. Clearly, she is also attracted to him, and she asks him how he manages to continue to live off grant money while never finishing his thesis. She also says the locals not only find Kenlaw, whose academic reputation Brandon is unaware but then he’s a folklorist and not an archaeologist, pushy but more interested in gold than anything else.
The meal ends when Dell’s dog Dan shows up with what looks like a child’s arm in his mouth.
The next day, Olin, Kenlaw, and Brandon go to the cave – and we learn that the “child’s arm” seems to have been from some sort of monkey-like critter that, somehow, showed up in the area. Perhaps a pet from a tourist.
Kenlaw and Brandon find an excavation, and Wagner spins out an effective scene of violence and discovery underground. Brandon discovers some truths about his nature and Kenlaw’s real motives.
But there are two stunning follow up scenes where Ginger hears some disturbing allegations from the FBI about Brandon which may or may or may not be true, but there are hints they are.
(I have to note here that, while most of Wagner’s gun details are right, he engages in an all too common fallacy that sound suppressors for guns are silencers. There are no suppressors that reduce gunfire to the point where you just hear the mechanical parts of a gun working.)
And the final scene, with Ginger and Brandon, is memorably disturbing.
Yes, I’ve skimped on the details not just out of laziness but so as to not spoil the surprise of an effective and fresh weird tale.