Now here’s a book way outside my normal range. I picked it up in exceptional circumstances.
Our local public library was closed for a long time for major building work and the next nearest is really small with a very limited stock. Moreover, the limited stock was mainly directed at older women who like romantic traditional stories. I don’t mean people took the books and threw them at old ladies. The old ladies are the main readership and of course the stock reflects that. Fair enough, but I was struggling to find something that interested me. Yes, I know about Amazon and also about on-line ordering of library books, but I have limited space, am lazy and in any case was curious about that library.
Then I came on a book that seemed totally out of place. From the cover, a skeletal gunslinger stared back at me. I was intrigued. I borrowed the book.
Although occult fantasy is not my thing, I fancy I had seen the author’s name and no doubt he’s famous. But for me it was a totally new experience and so I could go in with open mind and fresh eyes (hmm, fresh eyes sounds like something that might happen in this book).
The opening was powerful. A lone teenager on horseback, fleeing from something, was lost and probably dying in a desert somewhere in the American South-west. In fact the book is very well written. Especially in that opening scene and in the apocalyptic ending, there are pieces of vivid, ambitious, skilful descriptive writing. Maybe given how impoverished writing is preached as gospel in the States, you need to be writing about something like undead cowboys to get away with vivid and imaginative prose that could almost be poetry.
I was also intrigued that what you could call the theological backdrop, working on Judaeo-Christian and pagan myths, was well-thought-out. I was also surprised that the values and attitudes behind the writing seemed pretty liberal: for example, a closet-gay leading Mormon turns into a reluctant but very real hero and there are assertive women who reject male dominance without rejecting men.
I felt it had weaknesses, though. The most effective supernatural thrillers, like some very effective SF stories, present us with an apparently perfectly normal, familiar world and then something mysterious and scary is introduced into it, small enough to start with but growing and subverting the normal. Belcher’s small western town of Golgotha was weird from the start. The weirdness was everywhere. The book does provide an explanation for that (a bit like the reason in the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood why aliens kept turning up in Cardiff, and I don’t mean the English or the Japanese), but the all-pervasive weirdness makes the book less compelling for me. It was when the amiable, likeable, distinctly normal storekeeper turned out to be keeping his deceased wife semi-alive in a tank that I pulled back. I kept reading, but with less involvement, less suspension of disbelief.
It also seemed to me a weakness that the opening character, that haunted teenager, almost completely dropped out of the story (except for occasional flashbacks) until right at the end when, predictably, he played a key role. He was a convincing and interesting character and I’d like to have seen him kept more involved and to have seen more through his eyes. I do understand that it’s an old and good trick to introduce a place or a community through the eyes of a stranger, but that trick interests me in the stranger.
The author seemed to have researched some factual matters pretty well, but I was surprised that his small Western settlement around 1869 had several veterans of the war of 1812. It’s physically possible, but they’d be pretty old in a town you wouldn’t expect to have many old people, and that was was fought by quite small numbers.
One problem about any story like this is that if the worst outcome is the end of the universe, you don’t really believe it could happen (that is, you don’t think the author will write the end that way). By contrast, a thriller in which the worst outcome is the death of a decent person or wealth or power falling into evil hands, as in John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”, you fully believe the author may make it happen.
It was a fun read, though. Oh, and given the theological/mythological backdrop, I thought the sheriff’s unusual surname (Highfather) was going to turn out to be highly significant. Maybe Belcher had that idea, but it isn’t spelt out.