]n 1874, 17-year-old Haakon Jones leaves Minnesota, his mother dead, his older brother set to inherit the farm. Trading in his prized violin for a Colt Army revolver, which is going to see a whole lot of use in the next 32 years, he wanders the American West and beyond, ending up in San Francisco just in time to be involved with its 1906 earthquake. You could think of him as sort of a Western version of Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane. Indeed, the book is dedicated to Howard, except the ideals his Unitarian pastor back home admonishes him to remain true to are less fervently Christian than Kane’s Puritanism.
That’s all very nice, I hear you say, but why are you covering a 14-year-old book – and a Weird Western, at that? Innsmouth Free Press’s own J. Keith Haney, in his Retronomicon column, already does that quite ably. Why? Because this book deserves to be more widely known.
There are new additions to the Weird Western subgenre all the time in games, fiction, comics, and movies. I’ve been interested in it for decades, starting with old Twilight Zone comic books and the Clint Eastwood movies High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider. The trouble is that, while I haven’t looked at every single example of the subgenre, I have sampled quite a few and most have been disappointing. For me, that disappointment comes in three areas: annoying and unrealistic depictions of the West, conceptually lazy plots that simply throw werewolves or vampires or aliens into a western setting, and a failure to evoke a sense of place. The latter is important because, after all, place, a particular geographical setting and historical time, defines the “western” half of the “Weird Western.”
Now, there are werewolves and space aliens and vampires in this book, but there’s also a whole lot of other weirdness, a true smorgasbord of it. There is a golem, giant critters, weaponized vampire bats, lake monsters, Sasquatch, witches, trolls, a Mayan mummy, zombies, flying saucers, ghosts, Wendigo, Nazis, a mad scientist, and, yes, some Lovecraftian monsters, too. (Besides Howard, Lovecraft is another of the pulp authors the book is dedicated too.) There are more conventional menaces, as well: a pedophile, a gang of gunmen, and, in what I suspect is an homage to Howard’s boxing stories, a heavyweight champion of Mexico.
Larson can cram all this into less than three hundred pages because this fix-up novel is told through 35 chronologically arranged stories, most having first been published in Classic Pulp Fiction Stories in the 1990s. If you’re bored with one sort of monster, it’s not long until the next one will show up. Jones’ narration is often wry, sometimes poetic. It’s the speech of a drifter with a yen to learn life’s secrets. He frequently stops at libraries when he comes across them. It’s not the tall-tale, laconic, over-the-top drawl of Joe Lansdale’s Jonah Hex, which I never liked.
Larson also conveys a sense of the real American West and its people, though not every story is set there. Lakota mythology shows up with Hin-Han, the owl spirit that becomes a regular warning of the eerie about to show up in Jones’ life. His friend, and occasional partner in adventure, is Small Jumper, a Lakota he meets while both serve as scouts in Colonel Custer’s Seventh Cavalry.
One story involves a Dakota Territory community of what my parents would have called “Black Russians,” German immigrants from the Black Sea area. Cameo appearances of historical and fictional characters of the time abound: Buffalo Bill Cody; characters from the TV westerns, The Wild, Wild West and Have Gun, Will Travel; and the man associated with the most significant work of fantasy to come out of South Dakota, Frank L. Baum of Oz fame. In the zone between history and fiction, Larson also works in the legend of El Dorado, the disappearance of the Anasazi, and Vikings in America.
Larson also does a fine job of evoking place. Now, I have to admit my perceptions may be colored by my own unique perspective. I’ve either lived or been to the places mentioned in his Minnesota and Dakota Territory stories. (Indeed, the first place I ever saw this book mentioned was South Dakota Magazine.) On the other, hand S. P. Somtow wrote a long novel, Moon Dance, set at the same time and in many of the same areas, and didn’t bring the place to life. And, while I’ve never been to Seattle, I thought the story “In Seattle the Rain Comes for You!” did a nice job describing the city. That story, incidentally, seems both a nod to and argument with Lovecraft’s somewhat notorious “The Horror at Red Hook.” Both involve dastardly cults conducting underground rites in sleazy port cities, but Jones is helped in his fight against evil by a black preacher.
And, yes, there are quite-specific Lovecraftian elements here. Captain Lawton, Jones’ superior in the Army, is a reoccurring character with an interest in blasphemous books. They include Larson’s addition to that library, Olag Tryggvesson’s Dagbok av en Vanvittig Djevel av-en Utenfor Natt, which seems to translate as “Diary of a Mad Devil of Outside Night.” There’s also the little detour to an uncharted island in the Pacific in “Surf City, Here I Come” and the monster lurking in New Mexico in “The Door in the Desert.”
Now, this is not a perfect book and some of the flaws were more obvious on my second reading. Obviously, you’re not going to get a whole lot of character development in such short stories. Sometimes past subjects of Jones’ romantic attraction are too conveniently mentioned in only one story. Larson maintains his continuity pretty well, but one villain, seemingly killed in one story, pops up later in others. Perhaps, as the foreword says, we need to “forgive an old man’s memory.”
The reaction to a character’s death in the actually rather poignant and powerful “Can You Hear a Ghost Dance …,” based on the conflict between Small Jumper, who rejects the promises of the Ghost Dance, and his son, who joins the movement, weakens the story’s emotional effect. I was somewhat disappointed to see the supernatural menace of two of the stories set in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota, my old stomping grounds, to be somewhat vague in their manifestations and resolutions, though most of the stories set in that locale pleased me. And, of particular sorrow to a Lovecraft fan, I have to state that the problems brought up by some of the characters’ names in “Action on Arkham’s Boot Hill” almost completely ruined the story for me.
Still, though, Jones remains the high point of my travels in Weird Western territory, and I suspect many of you Innsmouth folk will cotton to something in it.