Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon, August 2013
ISBN-10: 161696104X, ISBN-13: 978-1616961046, $14.95, trade paperback
By Michael R. Collings
Joe R. Lansdale is an original. No one—but no one—tells a story with quite the same dark energy and wanton verve. Whether it be something like the sublimated sophistication of Edge of Dark Water, the celebratory redneckedness of the Hap and Leonard novels, the outré sense of the bizarre-made-real in shorter works like Bubba Ho-Tep, or an improbability treated as perfectly straight-forward fact in the Drive-In novels, Lansdale has mastered such a distinctive tone and approach that a page—even a paragraph—is almost as individual as a fingerprint.
Deadman’s Road is no exception. I can think of no one but Lansdale who could so successfully have perpetrated such a rollicking, rugged, and raw series of tales without a single lapse. The volume collects one previously published novella, “Dead in the West,” and four additional tales of a Wild West even wilder, weirder, and more outlandish than anyone might reasonably expect: “Deadman’s Road,” “The Gentleman’s Hotel,” “The Crawling Sky,” and “The Dark Down There.” The book was originally published in 2010 (Subterranean Press), but this edition contains Lansdale’s definitive statement on all of the (to this point, at least) adventures of the Reverend Jedidiah Mercer, man of God who trusts God no more than he trusts the Devil.
Mercer’s appointed task is to find and destroy Evil—not the evil perpetrated by men alone, but the greater Evil stemming directly from the Father of Evil,,,and occasionally from forces beyond that. Sometimes he finds support from fellow humans, but throughout the tales he mostly relies on his own armaments: two six-shooters (and it helps that he is an almost supernaturally gifted shootist) and a Bible capable of its own fiery punishments.
Sin appears in the stories but is rarely the focus of the action. Mercer’s own career began with incest (for which he seeks some kind of clearly-defined but ultimately elusive expiation), but as he travels from one terror-haunted town to another he confronts a host of additional sins. Murder, rape, bigotry, treachery, each exacerbating the others until toward the end of the collection, one must agree with Mercer’s caustic assessment, “Never underestimate the curiosity and stupidity and greed of man….” Or woman.
In the world of Deadman’s Road, the presence of sin is itself accentuated by that fact that, with a few notable exceptions, there are few true innocents to be found in settlements such as Mud Creek, Gimet, and Wood Tick, or in the cemeteries and ghost towns Mercer encounters. And those few innocents are as vulnerable to the Evil Mercer battles as are the guilty.
His enemies may wear human flesh, but at the core they are fiends. During the course of 278 pages, he must defeat demons, zombies, something at least superficially vampiric, haints and ghosts, familiars, spiders that may or may not be true arachnids, werewolves, shapeshifters, goblins, and kobolds—the latter a particularly nasty import from German mythology, with a more than unnatural attachment to their queen. Then there are the entities that move even further outward, the cosmically oriented older gods that ultimately harken back to Lovecraft. Although Lansdale does not mention any of the Great Old Ones by name, the requisite books of occult, eldritch knowledge, including the dreaded Necronomicon and The Book of Doches.
Frequently including wonderfully cadenced stories-within-stories, the tales in Deadman’s Road provide Lansdale with a perfect canvas for his particular kind of humor/horror. Everything is serious, yet nothing is taken too seriously. And the central figure of a preacher-man in black who resolves issues with his six-shooters and his Bible is ideal as a way of connecting the tales.