Review by C.J. Bunce
Who would have thought we’d be discussing a book in the second decade of the 21st century featuring new stories of the Old West? Titan Books has released such a work with Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West, bringing together short stories from 23 authors that mash-up the Old West with science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and horror.
The Dead Man’s Hand is of course the legendary card hand last held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot down by Jack McCall in Deadwood, South Dakota back in 1876. The superstitions carried forward by those cards–believed to be black aces and eights–fuels the magic and “weird” behind the stories in this compilation.
Fans of Louis L’Amour who may have open minds for the extremes of what might qualify as an Old West story should find at least a few good tales in Dead Man’s Hand. Like Mike Resnick’s story “The Hell-bound Stagecoach,” set in Arizona Territory circa 1885, it chronicles riders in a stagecoach who don’t quite remember how they ended up on the road bound for somewhere, as they encounter a proper lady who happens to be a good cook along the way. Resnick’s story is steeped in classic lore of the Old West era.
Editor John Joseph Adams attempts to summarize the genre in his introduction as having its roots in the works of Robert E. Howard, Gene Autry’s serial The Phantom Empire, and the 1970s series The Wild, Wild, West, but Adams could look back farther to cowboy lore–stories created and shared by those stranded in desert storms, creations of the lost, hungry and thirsty, like those seeing mirages. Like the story that would become Ghost Riders in the Sky, written by Stan Jones in 1948. Jones recalled the story was first told to him back around 1926, and certainly that story was among many Old West tomes of the oral tradition circulating back to even before the Civil War. Regardless of the earliest sources for such stories, they still entertain audiences in a world of cell phones, space travel, and the Internet.
Although the anthology includes a story by Cowboys and Aliens writer Fred Van Lente, the best cowboy and alien mash-up can be found in Seanan McGuire’s “Stingers and Strangers.” Set in Nevada along the Southern Pacific Railway in 1931, it follows a pair of cryptozoologists after Apraxis wasps–smart yellow jackets each the size of a shoe. It’s a fun ride, mixing the final scenes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Ridley Scott’s Aliens, but in our desert town past.
If you like steampunk, Beth Revis’s “The Man With No Heart” will satisfy with its world of automatons and mechanical spiders.
Some contributors to the volume used this as an opportunity to continue the tales of characters begun in prior works, including Alan Dean Foster’s “Holy Jingle,” a Mad Amos Malone tale, Rajan Khanna’s “Second Hand,” a Card Sharp story, Orson Scott Card’s “Alvin and the Apple Tree,” an Alvin Maker story retelling of Johnny Appleseed, and Laura Anne Gilman’s “The Devil’s Jack,” a story of the Devil’s West.
Many of the stories pull in real people and places, like Hugh Howey’s “Hell from the East,” and Tobias S. Buckell’s “Sundown,” creating an alternate history sub-genre to the weird Western story. While stories fit for inclusion in a future episode of The Twilight Zone include Charles Yu’s humorous “Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger,” about an unstoppable quick-draw, and Ben H. Winters’s sci-fi story “The Old Slow Man and His Gold Gun from Space.”
All said there is not a lot save the Old West mystique itself that these stories have in common. But that is the reason there is likely to be found something for every reader here. Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West is available now at bookstores everywhere and here at Amazon.com.