Dead Man’s Hand edited by John Joseph Adams

This is billed as an anthology of the ‘Weird West’. Westerns themselves have been out of favour for a very long time in the publishing world except as films. To have a western on the bookshelves is to up the ante and reach for literary realms rather than the traditional pulp fiction. Even the ‘Space Western’ has been supplanted. To set a story in a low tech environment among pioneers and inhospitable climates has seen writers such as Joe Abercrombie’s ‘Red Country’ turn to fantasy or steam-punk, like Mike Resnick’s ‘Weird West’ tales. This volume of ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ has twenty-three short stories that set the parameters firmly within the violent pioneer period of American history but with the requirement of an added, mostly supernatural, element. One of the nice things about this anthology is that every story has a date and a place at the start of it to orientate the reader but they are not chronological.


Many readers will bemoan the fact that only one of the authors in this volume is British, though this edition is released onto the British market. These might be the same people who complain that Americans setting stories in England usually make mistakes. Here, most of the authors are sticking with the history that they know and a nearly all American cast is entirely justifiable.

The one exception is Alastair Reynolds. His story, ‘Wrecking Party’ takes a surreal SF take on the brief. When Abel McCreedy is arrested for smashing up a horseless carriage belonging to an influential member of the town, he is arrested. The story has two interwoven parts. Abel’s story of train-wrecking parties and machine intelligences and the automobile owner’s siege on the jailhouse to get revenge of the destroyer of his property.

‘Hellfire On The High Frontier’ by David Farland has a similar theme in that the killer/gambler that Morgan Gray is sent to bring to justice is a clockwork man. In this steampunk landscape, the clockwork men were designed as soldiers during the civil war but this one still kills, at regular intervals. There is also a similar message in that it is only a matter of time before machines take over from fragile flesh and blood humans.

There are a number of ingredients that are often associated with the Wild West, all of which appear somewhere in this volume, each with their own twist. The gold rush is a well-known aspect of the opening up of the west of America so it is to be expected that prospecting will feature among the stories. ‘The Old Slow Man And His Gold Gun From Space’ by Ben H. Winters is a tongue-in-cheek encounter between two prospectors and a man who claims to be from Neptune. It doesn’t need them to believe him but his gun is certainly able to detect gold. While this is an instance where the space frontier meets the wild frontier, ‘The Golden Age’ by Walter Jon Williams is a farce with touches of steam punk and a super-hero thrown in for good measure.

The wild west is nothing without the gunslinger. Charles Yu’s narrator in ‘Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger’ provides an insight into why some are faster on the draw than others and at times a posse has to be assembled to hunt down the villain. Unfortunately, for the one assembled in ‘Lamadre Del Oro’ by Jeffrey Ford, they are hunting a man-eating monster.

Then there are the gamblers. Ray Malcolm, in ‘The Man With No Heart’ by Beth Revis, is a gambler with a sense of curiosity. When a punter offers to show him where he found his mechanical spider if he wins enough to leave town, Ray is prepared to lose. The decision is one that will change his understanding of himself. Amongst gamblers there will always be cardsharps, those men who win by cheating. Quentin Ketterly’s cards in ‘Second Hand’ by Rajan Khanna are not the usual kind. They can be used to cheat or to get out of trouble because the deck is magical. They must be used sparingly as once used, they are gone and they can be unpredictable which he keeps trying to drum into Hiram, his protégé, who loves the excitement of gambling and who is a trouble magnet.

In Laura Anne Gilman’s story, ‘The Devil’s Jack’, the narrator is unlucky enough to lose to the Devil but, to pay off his debt, he has to do the Devil’s work by collecting souls on his behalf, a role he is uncomfortable with.

Don’t forget the whorehouse, a feature of every pioneer town. The problem in ‘Holy Jingle’ by Alan Dean Foster is that one of the ladies appears to have bewitched the only man that Hank Monk will trust to ride shotgun on a shipment to California. Amos Malone is mad enough to try and break the enchantment.

‘Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle’ by Elizabeth Bear is also set in a whorehouse, but an upper class one in Seattle. Though a straight forward dispute about property, the girls and the implications are that this is a steampunk world.

Steampunk ideas have a lot to answer for in Tad Williams story ‘Strong Medicine’, too. At intervals, the town of Medicine Dance moves out of time and is invaded by whatever belongs in the era it has arrived in. To protect it, Custos returns to help face whatever problem arrives.

To get from place to place, there was often a stagecoach. However, the one in Mike Resnick’s ‘The Hell-Bound Stagecoach’ uses the good old-fashioned theme of the dead being collected and being taken to hell. In this case, it is the stagecoach that picks them up. Being dead doesn’t stop the three passengers refusing to accept their lot and causing mayhem. This is a witty and enjoyable story.

Trains, too, were an increasingly common sight crossing the continent so ‘Stingers And Strangers’ by Seaman Mcguire has a lot of its action in the station buildings. Here, the mission of Fran and Jonathan is to find out why a large and dangerous ‘alien’ species of wasp is moving its nests in the wrong season. This is a wild west where magic exists.

Thus, the supernatural arrives along with the pioneers. The volume kicks off with a vampire hunter story from Joe R. Lansdale. In ‘The Red-Headed Dead’, the Reverend Mercer takes shelter from a storm near a graveyard. During the storm, the protections that are keeping a vampire confined to its grave are blown away. Mercer has to either renew the wards or become the creature’s victim. It is a rare story that only has the contestants as characters and no-one will ever be aware that the battle took place.

In ‘Bamboozled’ by Kelley Armstrong, the situation of single male farmers’ perceived need for a wife is exploited by a group of conmen who are also werewolves.

But where would a volume about the wild west be without the conflict with the Native Indian tribes. Although they have had peripheral roles in other stories. ‘Hell FromThe East’ by Hugh Howey has a post-civil war setting and the self-inflicted madness is blamed on the Indians by the narrator trying to copy their rituals by staring at the sun but in ‘Red Dreams’ by Jonathan Maberry, the combination of the aftermath of a fierce battle and finds McCall, the sole survivor of the fight watching the dead walking past him in the direction that the a ‘comet’ (McCall’s term for a meteorite) fell. In both these stories, the events are influenced by a heavenly body and both are edging into the realms of SF.

‘Sundown’ by Tobias S. Buckell crosses the boundary with the perpetrators of the nasty deaths that are hunted by Marshall Kennard being true aliens. This is also the only story that considers the position of the ‘darky’ in a white community.

‘Neversleeps’ by Fred Van Lente is pure SF, set some time in the future but with all the trappings of the wild west, even down to the steam train.

Good authors tend to play to their strengths. Bucknell is Caribbean born, growing up in Grenada and the nature his protagonist reflects this. Ken Liu’s story ‘What I Assume You Shall Assume’ reflects his heritage and a period of American history when the Chinese were not welcome in the new country. In it, Amos becomes involved in protecting Yun, who is fleeing from those who wish to kill her merely for being Chinese.

Occasionally, in a volume like this, familiar characters appear. Orson Scott Card created an alternative America where magic was a feature of the land Alvin Maker has had many stories and novels told about him. ‘Alvin And The Apple Tree’ is slight in context with the wealth of other stories Card has told about him.

The best story in the volume is the final one and the title story. ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ by Christie Yant is a delightfully clever piece of writing and well worth waiting for, assuming you are the kind of person who starts at the beginning and reads on through.

All the contributions in this volume are well-written, though some catch the imagination more than others. The range of ideas generated by the theme shows a tremendous scope of imagination. Everyone should be able to find something to their taste.

Pauline Morgan

October 2014

(pub: Titan Books. 415 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78329-546-3)

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