Shadows West by Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale (book review)

‘Shadows West’ consists of three screenplays written by Joe R. Lansdale and his elder brother, John L. Lansdale. They are all weird westerns but were never made into films, the fate of many screenplays.

First up is ‘Hell’s Bounty’ which is set in the typical 1880s western town of Falling Rock, Wyoming Territory. It opens with a dark cloud exploding from a boarded up and disused mine shaft entrance. The cloud turns into millions of screeching bats who zoom off to the bell tower of Falling Rock and coalesce into a dark humanoid figure. Cut to Trumbo Quill outside the saloon, beating and shooting a man who dared sit on his hat. Trumbo then visits the grave of his late beloved wife and finds a dark figure sat there who offers to bring her back in return for…his soul. That doesn’t turn out as Quill planned but he’s still alive the next day when a stranger comes into town. Smith ambles into the saloon and joins a poker game with Quill, Lester McBride the undertaker and an Indian named Bull, who wears a derby hat with a feather sticking out. There’s also a cocky kid with a pair of fancy six-shooters hanging from his fancy belt and a drunk old man in the corner. These are standard western types but that’s all part of the fun.

The opening supernatural part mixes in with the standard modern western brutality when Smith dies and the demon takes over Quill. Smith wakes up in a saloon in Hell where the devil, as a bartender, tells him that a demon has gone rogue. Smith is recruited to go back to Falling Rock and recapture or kill the demon. He has one heck of a posse to assist him.

‘Hell’s Bounty’ is pure hokum. Way over the top, ludicrous, corny, violent, visceral, crude action that would make the kind of horror film I call good trash. You know its complete rubbish but you have to watch it. I’d love to see it made but probably never will. It’s entered the never-never land of options sitting on some producer’s desk.

The same is true for the other stories here. Next up is ‘Deadman’s Road’ which is similar in tone but with a different plot. Jubil is a bounty hunter specialising in the weird and is accompanied on his travels by a pretty blonde named Terry. She pretends they are partners and he pretends they are not which makes for some banter. After killing a werewolf, they end up at the Carver Trading Company having a plate of beans. There ain’t much else to have since Pine Tree road, the main route to town, became haunted by a dead honey trader called Gimet. Now they call it Deadman’s Road and no one will use it. The old-timer who runs the trading post offers Jubil a sum of money to get rid of Gimlet. They set off down Deadman’s Road accompanied by Deputy Caleb, who is escorting murderer Bill to town. Tagging along for the ride are Christian, a dark-haired waitress at the trading post, and Dash, who was the dead werewolf’s brother. Gimet turns out to be a formidable opponent for this great adventure.

Finally, there’s ‘Dead In The West’ which started more slowly than the others but built up to a dramatic climax. Reverend Jebediah Mercer sins with a woman, kills a man, burns down his church and flees to Mud Creek, a town with a guilty secret. There’s a dead Indian and his wife seeking revenge on the folks there and the Reverend gets involved. Luckily, he’s as handy with a six-shooter as he is with the holy bible. Zombies play a big part again. The cast is the usual western crew: the gambler, the weak sheriff, the good doctor, the sneaky hotel owner and the nice young lad who just needs to be shown the right path. In all these stories, the authors stick closely to tried and true western stereotypes but that’s because the audience would expect it, I think, rather than through lack of imagination. It’s also because like their audience and me, the Lansdale’s love old westerns. All they do is add lots of zombies, demons and magic to the mix to make it more dramatic.

I like weird westerns, too. I first came across them when I used to review ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’. Like the western itself, the weird western is a distinctly American genre or sub-genre. For those of us who grew up watching old westerns on television with dad and then got hooked on SF and fantasy, the weird western is an enticing mish-mash. In the hands of the Lansdale brothers, it inclines to the gory end of the spectrum because horror is their field but that’s fine with me.

You can have too much of a good thing and, because these three stories are pretty similar, this book is best taken in three bites with a few weeks between them. That said, each bite can be had pretty much at one sitting. The screenplays are easy to read and do a good job of imparting a cinematic vision to your inner eye. When I chose the book for review I didn’t notice it was screenplays, not my favourite form, but it worked out all right.

This won’t be to everyone’s taste. In fact, many people would find it appalling. However, if you like corny old westerns, zombies, violence, crudity and all-out macabre escapism, then the Lansdales deliver it in their own inimitable style. The screenplays all have that crazy, over the top ‘From Dusk ‘Till Dawn’ atmosphere about them and it would be great if Quentin Tarrantino made them into films. We can hope. You can also hope this will be released in a cheap edition one day. I had an old ARC but the real book is now only available second-hand for the usual crazy prices.

Eamonn Murphy

December 2019

(pub: Subterranean Press, 2012. 420 page deluxe hardback. Price: $50.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-432-4)

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