Review: Cold Slither and Other Horrors of the Weird West, ed. David J. West, 2016.
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.
“Tangle Crowned Devil” hints at a link between the Rockwell of the Dark Trails Saga and the Cowboys & Cthulhu series since Bloody Mary of Let Sleeping Gods Lie is mentioned. On the trail of some rustlers, Rockwell is called by the men of a mining camp to destroy some beast that has killed and eaten a bunch of people. It is, of all things, a jackalope.
“Fangs of the Dragon” is a long story is chockful of several elements. First, there is the backdrop of a Mormon dispute of traditional Mormons under Brigham Young faced with the reformist Godbeite movement which argues that the church should be open to new revelations, including that allegedly provided by spiritualists. They, fearing that the US government wants to come down on the Mormons for the Mountain Meadow Massacre and other things, wish to make Utah less of a theocracy and hope that will also lead to more material prosperity. We also hear, for the first time, that Rockwell has a Bowie knife blessed in Navoo. This one has two beasts with one being an early example of an American cryptid.
There’s Mormon folklore in “Garden of Legion” with a reference, in the opening scene, to the Three Nephite, disciples of Christ’s in the New World who will “tarry” until Christ’s return. It’s a tale of demonic possesion.
“Red Wolf Moon” is a ghost story combined with yet another lost Spanish mine. Rockwell stumbles across both when he finds a gang he’s been tracking mysteriously slain.
“Killer Instinct” is West’s version of Beowulf and involves a leftover dinosaur. This story, full of some memorable lines, emphasizes the value of Rockwell’s talent for killing and how it’s a good thing sometimes.
“Right Hand Man” is narrated by a former Mormon dissident, George Watt, who has been reunited with the traditional church. He goes along with Rockwell when the call is put out by local Indians for Mormon help to put down a Paiute shaman named Toohoo-emmi. He was kicked out of the tribe for dabbling in “black magic” and being “too removed from the Great Spirit”. Giant snakes, shapeshifters, and a dying race of dwarfish warriors get thrown in the mix. This one ends up being an explicitly Cthulhu Mythos story.
There’s an old supernatural menace “Striding Through Darkness” in another town seeking help. This time it’s a strange, wasting disease. Maybe it has something to do with strange screeching at night and red eyes in the dark.
These are all well-done action stories, and Rockwell frequently delivers some nice lines. However, I can’t claim any of these stories stuck in my mind in the seven months between reading them and writing this review.