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{Book Review} West of Hell

If there is one specific sub-genre we don’t get nearly enough of, it’s the horror western. You’d think with the infinite possibilities the setting provides for scary tales, it would be more popular. The last release that made a splash was Bone Tomahawk (2015), and even then it’s still flown mostly under the radar. Luckily, if you’re like me and these kind of stories scratch a very particular itch of yours, the newest entry in Crystal Lake’s Dark Tide series, “West of Hell” will do just that.

“West of Hell” is a collection of three horror western short stories, each from a different author and each with a distinctly different feel. The first is ‘Ghost Dance’ by James A. Moore, following that is ‘The Trickster of Paradise’ by R. B. Wood, and the collection is capped off by ‘Last Sunset of a Dying Age’ by Michael Burke.

Our first story, ‘Ghost Dance’, focuses on two mysterious traveling companions, Mister Crowley and Lucas Slate, as they are in the middle of chasing down someone who may be more monster than man. Along the way, they are interrupted by a group of strangers asking for help against, “an abomination before the eyes of the Lord.” The narrative from there takes several twists and turns as we learn more about our protagonists, the mysterious ghost dance, why the dead are coming back to life, and what exactly it has to do with the enigmatic Crowley.

While the story, characters, and worldbuilding are solid, the absolute best part of Ghost Dance is the violence. Without giving too much away, Crowley and Slate find themselves up against several revenants. For those unfamiliar, a revenant is basically a zombie that retains its consciousness. Even though bullets can take them down, not only does it take far more than it would a human, but they don’t feel any pain. The level of detail given to the revenants and the wounds they sustain during combat packs a major punch, making it easy for the imagination to paint a picture of the gruesome action. Much like the other two stories that come after, Ghost Dance feels cinematic in its overall execution and scope.

Next up on the docket, we have ‘The Trickster of Paradise’ which is about a young man, Thaddeus, as he attempts to defend his town from invaders by making a deal with a supernatural deity. Unlike the previous story, the focus here is more personal, rarely leaving the perspective of Thad as he tries to save those he loves before they all end up six-feet-under… or worse.

‘The Trickster of Paradise’ excels is in its Faustian narrative. Thad is desperate, willing to do whatever it takes to keep his town, and its inhabitants, alive. To do this, he makes a bargain with an ancient force far more powerful than he can even fathom. He has no idea what he must give to get what he wants, but he doesn’t care as long as the job gets done. This leads to a climax that pulls the rug right out from under you, and feels so unfairly grim that you can’t help but appreciate its darkly comical audacity.

Finally, there’s ‘Last Sunset of a Dying Age’, which somehow manages to be a creature feature, western, and samurai tale all-in-one. The story follows the citizens of Copper City and a ronin on the run, Ibuki Shibuya, as they attempt to slay a vicious beast terrorizing the town.

This concluding story is the best of the bunch, for a variety of reasons. The one that stands out the most is how the story elevates its lead character Ibuki Shibuya. Not only does he have the most engaging character arc in the collection, but he’s just flat out cool. You can tell author Michael Burke did his homework in crafting him, as he makes sure to pay respect to the details around the characterization of Shibuya as a rogue samurai. You’d be hard-pressed to not want to see a spin-off focusing on his adventures before arriving at Copper City. The guy is just dripping with a swagger that leaks right off the page.

My only real complaint with this anthology is that it can often feel jumbled. The stories tend to have more characters than they know what to do with, with narrative structures that, at times, feel confusing when they don’t have to. Much of what feels cluttered could be fixed by streamlining the narratives and cutting down on the number of perspective changes. 

Minor gripes aside, West of Hell is a unique, engaging, and gratuitously violent affair that is sure to satisfy fans of this unjustly under-appreciated sub-genre. It’s even a quick read, clocking in at under a hundred pages, making it a perfect after dark read that you can knock out in one sitting. West of Hell comes out later this week and you can pre-order it here.