by Joe R. Lansdale
Cover Artist: Timothy Truman
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596063303
Date: 30 November 2010 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Deadman's Road combines all of the stories Joe R. Lansdale has written about the gun totting preacher Jebidiah Mercer, who travels the wild west fighting supernatural evils. This is made up of one short novel and four short stories chronicling Mercer's adventures, all of them written in the pulp mode that would have made them fit perfectly in an old issue of Weird Tales, except for the prominence, and occasional overuse of, gore and crude sexual references. These stories include both the strengths and weaknesses of the pulp mode, and in general fall short of the best stories of that style as exemplified in H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, but they make for some light entertainment nonetheless.
The longest part of the book is taken up by the short novel Dead in the West, which follows Mercer through his first encounter with the supernatural, in the form of a vampiric, demon-possessed Indian and his army of zombie minions who are intent on leveling the town of Mud Creek. It includes some classic zombie movie scenes, most notably when the preacher and a handful of other townsfolk hold up, heavily armed, in a fortified church to hold off the horde of zombies. There's lot of gunfire, some fairly effective scenes of grotesquery, and a suspenseful race against time to survive until dawn.
The novel is perhaps a bit too long for its rather familiar premise; the build up to the attack on the town is fairly drawn out for no clear purpose. In addition, I was somewhat bothered by the use of the Indian shaman as villain. On the one hand, the Indian is clearly wronged, and has a reason for his revenge. He and his wife are brutally lynched and murdered for no crime, victims of the prejudice of the townsfolk. However, casting the Indians as possessors of arcane secrets and knowledge of demonic pacts is suspect. It seems to perpetuate the stereotype of the Indians as outsiders, possessors of hidden, baneful secrets. This motif occurs often enough in the other stories as well to make me uneasy. In some ways, Lansdale challenges the racism of the old pulps, but in other ways he perpetuates it.
The four short stories that follow this show us a more cynical, hardened version of Mercer. He now espouses a harsh theology, where God is a distant and cruel game player, setting challenges and tasks for his faithful for his own amusement. Despite this, Mercer continues to serve God, by actively hunting out the supernatural, manifestations of other gods or powers, and slaying them. This darkness and morbid theological pessimism is quite interesting, and is one of the main appeals of the stories for me. However, after reading all of them, there is a somewhat numbing sameness to the story lines. Mercer arrives at some location, is told a story of supernatural terror and woe, discovers some weakness of the monster or monsters, and then shoots them until they die. This framework is embellished in various ways, but it remains constant throughout. The stories might benefit from being read one at a time over a longer stretch of time, where the similarities would be less marked.
While the writing is effective in general, Lansdale is overly fond of throwing in unnecessary references to sex in order to elicit discomfort. What does it add to the story, for example, to know that a women he accompanies in one story masturbates her dog to keep it happy? I suppose the shock and discomfort is the purpose, but I found it excessive and unnecessary. This aside, however, the writing is fast paced and slightly purple in the pulp tradition. It's not great literature, it doesn't even come as close as a good Conan story to being great literature, but its fun.
Overall, I enjoyed this book as a piece of fun, light reading. It's not perfect, and I'm not sure I'd pay the $40 cover price, but if you are a fan of pulp style writing and have already finished going through Robert E. Howard, or if you want to see what a wild west version of Lovecraft would look like with more sex and gore, then this book is worth a look.