Review by C.J. Bunce
Time loops, time travel, a hellmouth, and ghosts. That doesn’t sound like a Western novel, and it certainly doesn’t sound like the purview of Walt Longmire, title character of the long-running television series, and hero of Craig Johnson’s series of novels. But in Hell and Back, Johnson goes into experimental territory, taking the calm and cool sheriff into entirely new places, a new town, and a new time. His latest novel–Longmire #18–merges the Western genre you’d expect to find with science fiction and horror tropes as Johnson’s hero embarks on his own journey, something out of The X-Files or Twin Peaks, or like an episode of Longmire collided with The Twilight Zone. If you miss the television series and have been hoping for another episode, this is for you. Hell and Back is available here now in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook.
Don’t confuse that title with World War II hero Audie Murphy’s autobiography To Hell and Back. This novel, just Hell and Back (no “To”), plays out like a two-part episode of the TV series. Readers new to the character, the novels or the TV series, can probably get by without any background or introduction to the character, but they may have different takes on who the protagonist is. Johnson relies on the reader either meeting Longmire before or forming their own opinions from the little about him that he spoons out slowly in this very different setting for the character.
Readers catch up with Walt as he awakens far from home in the tiny town of Fort Pratt, Montana. Why is he there and how did he get there? That’s what he wants to know, too. He has amnesia, and the only information telling him anything about himself is his name inside the brim of his hat. He’s also in the middle of a winter storm with no communication possible for the next 31 hours. Why 31 hours? He wants to know that, too. The town is known for a boarding school where a group of boys died in a fire long ago.
Asking questions, meeting a waitress, encountering strange characters, finding a preacher who puts him up for the night at the local hotel–all these things provide him glimpses about what happened to him and why he came to town. He’s carrying the image of a missing woman and figures he might be a bounty hunter, and he seems to know he has some kind of law enforcement role. But how does she relate to the boarding school fire? What’s with the people and places in and around the old movie theater? As the story moves forward, a couple from out of town tell him a supernatural story straight out of The Twilight Zone episode, “Stopover in a Quiet Town.” It appears they are stuck in some kind of repetition. Time loops are beyond Walt’s comprehension, but the people in the town may not be what they seem.
At the same time, readers catch up with Henry Standing Bear and Deputy Vic, who are in Fort Pratt looking for Walt. But they aren’t having much luck, until Vic finds Walt’s truck. As it introduces Walt into the realms of horror and science fiction via a unique time travel voyage, plus those time loops, the novel does it in a believable way, consistent with the world of Walt, Henry, Native American folklore, and what we know already about these characters in Absaroka County, Wyoming. It’s a joy to read, and a solid continuation of the series. And the title is certainly apt.
For the Western genre, Johnson’s writing doesn’t require much from the reader, especially as compared to someone more detail-oriented like Louis L’Amour. Only one thing happens at a time, and Johnson’s simple descriptions, simple protagonist’s viewpoint, and plot without many twists or turns, all make for a quick and easy read. It’s also fun. Fans of Henry might be left wanting more Henry scenes (you can never feature too much Henry). I’d suggest skipping the Acknowledgements included in the front of the book instead of the back and save it for later–you’ll have a better read just jumping into the tale with less hints at what lies ahead.
Longmire the TV series (a “Best of the Decade” selection–#21–reviewed here) ran between 2012 and 2017–a great drama, exciting, often humorous, and as good a modern Western as you could hope for, streaming on Netflix. Headlining a Western “Law & Order,” actor Robert Taylor’s Sheriff Longmire is Gary Cooper in High Noon, but he’s also Old Man Logan in a small town in modern day Montana. All six seasons are a pleasure to watch, with a core cast of brilliant performers that show some serious acting chops. Katee Sackhoff is Deputy Vic, and Lou Diamond Phillips creates one of the best characters ever on TV in the wise, loyal friend Henry Standing Bear.