by Joe R Lansdale and John L. Lansdale
Cover Artist: Timothy Truman
Review by Katie Carmien
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596067455
Date: 29 February 2016 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
When the bounty hunter known only as Smith rides into the border town of Falling Rock, he thinks it's just another job. But soon things heat up. He runs afoul of a deadly man named Quill and ends up dead--and in Hell's own waiting room, where the devil himself has a deal for him. Quill has made a pact with horrors from beyond the walls of the universe. They intend to conquer the world, and the devil's not having any of that. If Smith can stop the end of the world, he can save his soul. In his corner, he's got a magic gun, a magic horse, and Payday, a one-eyed whip-wielding fighter who's determined to keep her town safe. Problem is, they've only got three days, and Quill's mighty strong....
Hell's Bounty's biggest strength and biggest weakness is this: it's a fusion of old Westerns and old pulp fiction, of landscapes John Wayne would be comfortable in and monsters straight out of a 30s horror magazine. It's pretty clear Lansdale and Lansdale were going for cool with a side of fun, and there's a lot of cool here. Armies of zombie cowboys, a badass one-eyed woman who uses her trick-riding skills to fight monsters and doesn't take any nonsense, and a seriously scary villain all make for a serious heaping of old-style pulp-fiction awesome.
Much of the dialogue, particularly Payday's, is snappy and funny, although it often slides into stilted exposition whenever something needs to be explained--which, alas, is a lot, because there's a lot going on. A little more editing would have served these sections well. The authors are also adept at creating atmosphere. My only complaint about their descriptions is that sometimes the descriptions, no matter how atmospheric, seem more like a list than sentences that connect to each other.
Unfortunately, as mentioned, the bad side of the old Westerns is also out in full force. Namely, no one who's not a white man gets a fair shake. The sole person of color is a criminal solely referred to as his race. Every woman is described in terms of her attractiveness, and there is only one who's important to the plot, Payday, who is immediately so badly mishandled that it casts a pall over the rest of the narrative despite her skill as a fighter. In the first couple of chapters, the villain rapes her to establish his villain credentials, while Smith does nothing, in order to establish that he's an antihero. To their credit, the authors give Payday plenty of space to be angry about this and no one pushes her to forgive him, but then she just...does, and falls into Smith's arms. It's neither believable nor satisfying.
As I mentioned, Lansdale and Lansdale were clearly going for cool and fun. Did they get there? Well, it's hit-and-miss. Some things are cool (did I mention the zombie cowboys?). Some things are fun. Some things, such as the initial treatment of Payday and the romance subplot, soured me so badly on the book that I was less inclined to forgive things I might otherwise have ignored in favor of finding out what happened next. I did want to find out what happened next, but honestly? The book would have been about ten times better if Payday was the main character, not Smith. She is far more interesting, and her narrative needed the book's full attention in order to work properly. I wouldn't warn someone against reading Hell's Bounty, but neither does it get my whole-hearted recommendation.