Joe R. Lansdale
Dust Jacket by Timothy Truman
Interior Illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne
Subterranean Press, 2010, $40.00, 271 pages
Review by Wayne C. Rogers
Deadman’s Road by Joe R. Lansdale is a collection of five western/horror stories that deal with the Reverend Jebidiah Mercer – a preacher and gunslinger who’s on a mission for God, who seeks out the evil and horror in each town he visits and destroys it with extreme prejudice. Now, when you think of the Reverend Mercer, you need to picture Clint Eastwood in your mind from the movie, Pale Rider, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the character looks like and his general temperament in stressful situations.
The first of the stories in this fun-filled anthology is “Dead in the West,” which is a novella and the longest of the five pieces. This story was first written back in 1985 and introduced the Reverend to the world. The other four stories were written at various times during the past twenty years and are reminiscent of the early pulp novels and the early Jonah Hex comic books. These stories are purer, in-your-face entertainment and are filled with the dark, Texas humor that Joe (Hisownself) is famous for, graphic scenes of violence, rich Texas folklore and locations that would give author, Larry McMurtry, a run for his money.
The first story is “Dead in the West”, and it begins with the good Reverend Jebidiah Mercer entering the small town of Mud Creek on the eve of the town’s retribution. You see, many of the town’s citizens took it upon themselves to murder an Indian medicine man and his woman out of nothing more than racist hatred. The Indian placed a curse on the town of Mud Creek and its citizens just before he was lynched. That curse is now coming into play as the Reverend enters the town. As the demonic spirit of the Indian begins to seek its revenge by slaughtering people here and there and turning them into his followers, the Reverend Mercer makes a stand in the town’s church with the local doctor, his pretty daughter, and a few others. It isn’t long before the church is surrounded with zombie-like creatures who want some fresh food to quench their mounting hunger. Reverend Mercer will have his hands full trying to survive the siege and to deliver God’s unmerciful justice to all of the undead.
The second story is this collection is “Deadman’s Road.” This time, Reverend Jebidiah happens to stop at a small log cabin on his journey through eastern Texas and seeks food and logging for the night. The owner of the cabin, Old Timer, invites him in to have a plate of beans with some of his other visitors – a deputy from the town of Nacogdouches and his prisoner, who’s being taken back to hang for his crimes of rape and murder. When the deputy inquires about any short cuts existing back to Nacogdouches, Old Timer tells him about Deadman’s Road, which could easily cut a day off the lawman’s journey. The only catch is the road is haunted by the spirit of another murderer called Gimet. The deputy decides to take his chances with the short cut if the Reverend will accompany him. It’s impossible for Jebidiah to refuse such a generous offer, especially when there’s the opportunity of meeting an evil spirit and sending it back to hell where it belongs.
In “The Gentleman’s Hotel,” Reverend Mercer enters a dead town without a living soul living in it. Well, I take that back. There is one person still alive and she’s hiding in an over-turned stagecoach. Mary is a working girl and was traveling to the town to work in the Gentleman’s Hotel, or brothel. The stagecoach was attacked by something resembling werewolves and they almost got her, but she stuck one in the eye with her umbrella and they fled away. Jebidiah helps Mary out of the stagecoach and being that these are werewolves she’s talking about, decides to take up residence in the hotel to wait for nightfall to arrive and for the creatures to come out again. Once the Reverend and Mary are inside the hotel, they meet a friendly spirit named Dol, who was murdered by the evil entities. He gives both of them the lowdown on how everything came to be, originating four-hundred years before with the arrival of the Conquistatores. From what both Dol and Mary have told him, the Reverend comes up with an idea for fighting the werewolves. It’s certainly going to be a fight to the death when the hairy creatures finally come out and charge the hotel to kill both Jebidiah and Mary.
“The Crawling Sky” is the fourth story in Deadman’s Road and the town Jebidiah Mercer encounters is so tiny, it only has a few buildings and a makeshift jail on wheels with bars around it. Chained inside the jail is a young man named Norville. The few people in the community think he’s totally loco. It all started after Norville married one of the local girls. They took over a vacated cabin a couple of hours outside of town, fixing it up and hoping to live a good life. Things changed for the worse when Norville emptied the nearby well of all the rocks that had been thrown into it. By doing that, he released an evil demon that began to haunt them for a short period of time before finally killing Norville’s new wife. When Norville flew into town and told everybody about what had happened, they promptly locked him up as a lunatic. Reverend Mercer manages to secure Norville’s release on the condition from the sheriff that they both skedaddle on out of town. Jebidiah believes Norville’s tale of woe and together they ride out to the cabin so the Reverend can check out this demon from the well. Like in the previous stories, a big shootout commences once nightfall comes and the demon starts checking out the cabin with the two guests inside.
The final short story in the anthology is “The Dark Down There.” This one centers on a mining camp that Jebidiah Mercer pays a visit to after being ambushed by several hungry miners on the road to nowhere. Their excuse for trying to bushwhack him is that mean-spirited goblins in the mine made them do it, but that doesn’t stop Jebidiah from putting a bullet into each of the no-good back shooters. This does, however, prompt the Reverend to pay a visit to the mine to find out what’s going on. He no sooner enters the community and the local bar (the one thing all western towns had back then was a bar for drinking and conjugating) when he’s forced to shoot down two local tough guys. Getting directions to the mine, Jebidiah encounters a fat woman named Flower who was related to the two dead men and is damn happy someone finally did them in. Flower offers to help Jebidiah in his quest to discover the secrets of the silver mine if she can do some digging herself and maybe find enough silver to help her escape from the community once and for all. It sounds like a good deal to the Reverend, and she quickly hops on the back of his horse (another thing that should be noted is that Jebidiah Mercer tends to lose a lot of horses in these stories), and they ride up to her digs, which is nothing more than a hole in a rock with a blanket hanging over it and a big, black, monster of a dog guarding the place. They soon have some beaver meat and beans, and then prepare for the night. Later, on the way to the mine, Jebidiah tells Flower about the Kobolds, or goblims that live in the mine and how they came from deep down in the earth, loving to mine silver and to use men as their slaves or food. When they reach the old mine, the Reverend finds a box of dynamite and places several sticks of it into his coat pockets. He and Flower then enter the mine and prepare for an all out battle with the little demons with tails and their hideous queen.
Deadman’s Road is a collection that horror aficionados will love. Because the stories are much the same in that Reverend Jebidiah Mercer enters a town, or community, or encounters a cabin, and then does battle with the evil that’s there, it’s probably best not to read these stories back to back, but rather to space them out a little so you can savor each one. All the stories are good reads with “Dead in the West” being ideal for a movie adaptation that would put Jonah Hex to shame.
Joe R. Lansdale has a way with words that’s descriptive, humorous, easy on the ears with its east Texas drawl, and very addictive. Unlike many of Joe’s other works (The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line, Sunset and Sawdust, and the “Hap/Leonard” series), Deadman’s Road is geared to primarily to fans of the horror genre. True fans of the western genre might have a little difficulty with the horror aspects of each story, but who knows. Joe has a way of making the unbelievable totally believable, and people who like westerns might just find these unique pieces of fiction right up their alley. It’s definitely a no-brainer for the fans of horror fiction out there. This is the type of writing that first made Joe Lansdale famous.
For any avid fan of the great Joe Lansdale, Deadman’s Road is a must for their collection. The dust jacket by Timothy Truman is fabulous with the zombie-like, gun-toting Indians on the front. The interior illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne captures the theme of each story perfectly with his special blend of artwork that depicts the darkness and evil Joe writes about. Pick up of copy of this hardcover wherever you can and then read the stories late at night when everybody else is asleep. I guarantee it won’t be long before you hear a gentle tapping at your window, but don’t look out to see who’s there…not if you want to see the sun come up in the morning.