Sunday, 20 July 2014

Book Review - Dead Man's Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West

Edited by John Joseph Adams
Published by Titan Books


My first exposure to the Weird West was the tabletop roleplaying game ‘Deadlands’, in which magic, superstition and downright Cthulhu-esque shenanigans were afoot in the wild west of America of the late 19th century. It was an interesting premise but not one that I explored fully. After experiencing the horror that was the movie ‘Wild Wild West’ and the films ‘Jonah Hex’ and ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’… well, those three things alone were enough to make want to cast fantasy westerns away with a grimace of disdain.

After reading about ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ I was unsure as to whether I really wanted to dive back into the weird west again. If it had been a single novel-length story I would most likely have given it a miss, but as this was a short story anthology, with some high-profile names such as Alan Dean Foster, Alastair Reynolds and Elizabeth Bear… I felt that I had a better chance at enjoying at least some of the stories even if the genre didn’t appeal to me as a whole.

After experiencing ‘The Red-Headed Death’ by Joe R. Lansdale, the first story in the book, I pretty much knew I was in for something exciting. It’s a fast, violent story and the conclusion is satisfying and intriguing – there’s more this Jebediah Mercer character and I felt that I wanted to learn more about him. Not only that, but the story is the literary equivalent of knocking back three fingers of firewater and then having the editor slam your head into the saloon bar while pressing the still-warm barrel of a Sam Colt in your head and growling, ‘you will read the rest of this book’. You simply can’t say no.

After this story I thought that the rest of the book would follow a similar tack, with the supernatural, death, demons, vampires and gun-toting werewolves bursting through saloon doors and fast-drawing on shotgun-wielding priests. As cool as that sounds, it didn’t quite work out that way.

Dead Man’s Hand is a collection of pretty much every type of science fiction, horror and fantasy cast into the old west. Vampires? Check. Aliens? Oh, yeah. Dinosaurs? What? Er… okay then. I saw ‘The Valley Of Gwangi’, how bad can it be?

Not bad at all. In fact, I think Tad Williams’ ‘Strong Medicine’ is my favourite of the lot. In Medicine Dance, Arizona something peculiar occurs once every thirty-nine years. Time goes crazy and all kinds of prehistoric creatures emerge. It sounds insane but the story is much more layered than that and it makes for an excellent character driven story with an unexpected reveal at the end.

Dead Man’s Hand doesn’t really have any bad stories in there. There were two I wasn’t totally sold on but they were still good stories, and the others range from very good to excellent. It’s a cracking book and I imagine it’s an anthology that I’ll come back to more than once.

The complete list of stories -

‘The Red-Headed Dead’ by Joe R. Lansdale
‘The Old Slow Man and His Gold Gun From Space’ by Ben H. Winters
‘Hellfire on the High Frontier’ by David Farland
‘The Hell-Bound Stagecoach’ by Mike Resnick
‘Stingers and Strangers’ by Seanan McGuire
‘Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger’ by Charles Yu
‘Holy Jingle’ by Alan Dean Foster
‘The Man With No Heart’ by Beth Revis
‘Wrecking Party’ by Alastair Reynolds
‘Hell from the East’ by Hugh Howey
‘Second Hand’ by Rajan Khanna
‘Alvin and the Apple Tree’ by Orson Scott Card
‘Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle’ by Elizabeth Bear
‘Strong Medicine’ by Tad Williams
‘Red Dreams’ by Jonathan Maberry
‘Bamboolzed’ by Kelley Armstrong
‘Sundown’ by Tobias S. Buckell
‘La Madre Del Oro’ by Jeffrey Ford
‘What I Assume You Shall Assume’ by Ken Liu
‘The Devil’s Jack’ by Laura Anne Gilman
‘The Golden Age’ by Walter Jon Williams
‘Neversleeps’ by Fred Van Lente
‘Dead Man’s Hand’ by Christie Yant