Fresh Meat: Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West edited by John Joseph Adams

Dead Man's Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West edited by John Joseph Adams collects 23 short stories set in a Wild West teeming with gunslingers, rattlesnakes, outlaws, zombies, aliens, time travelers, and steampunkery (available May 13, 2014).

Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West opens with “The Red-Headed Dead” and Joe R. Lansdale’s Reverend Mercer clashing with what Hand Editor John Joseph Adams calls in the introduction “a new unholy monster to battle.” With all due respect, that may be an understatement. Our good Reverend, on horseback, is swept down a hill and past a graveyard to a makeshift cabin as the surroundings area is being shredded apart by unhallowed forces. Before Mercer can pause for a breather, a creature that has “hardly a face at all” and “dark pads of rotting meat above its eyes” appears through a hole in the roof and descends on him. He quickly realizes his blessed bullets touched with drops of silver are useless. Is Mercer ready for Boot Hill? Lansdale was the chief architect of modern weirder storytelling that began with 1986’s Dead in the West, and this current story shows he hasn’t missed a beat. Bravo to Mr. Adams for beginning the anthology on such a high note.

“The Old Slow Man and His Gold Gun from Space” by Ben H. Winters had me chuckling several times during this amusing and atypical little number. Two losers named Caleb and Crane, with “golden promises of Sutter’s Mill” in 1851, get more than they bargain for when an old man from the planet Neptune offers them a simple proposition. He carries “an antique flintlock pistol” that locates gold and proposes that they split the gold, explaining his people on the eighth planet eat it for food and they’re in danger of running out. Crane asks the obvious question—why doesn’t the old man just do it himself—which is answered. But, I’m betting most readers won’t guess the ending.

In “Holy Jingle,” Alan Dean Foster’s character Mad Amos Malone is asked by Hank Monk—famed 19th century stage coach driver—to help him investigate the disappearance of pal and co-worker John Barrel, who was last seen at a Carson City brothel. Monk is visibly worried but tries to play it off as nothing more, perhaps, than a woman from the dreaded east who’s enraptured Barrel. If it is anything more “I’ll gnaw the hindquarters off a northbound polecat” Monk adds. He has little money and offers a gold watch given to him by Horace Greely. Mad Amos accepts. Of course, when they arrive at the establishment, they find things at play “that transcended love and sex.” Mr. Foster is a revered fantasy and science fiction writer whose credits include novelizations of Star Wars and Star Trek amongst numerous others. “Holy Jingle” was so darn entertaining; it had me looking for a 1996 short story collection called Mad Amos.

“Hell from the East” is told by the mega-popular—deservedly so—Hugh Howey. Two soldiers are guarding a certain Lieutenant Randall who “took the sickness” and killed five men in their camp.  Upon hearing Randall murmur Arapaho language in his sleep, they suspect he has “gone native” and set out to search for clues. Their discoveries are anything but normal as is Lowey’s assured and poetic writing. Not to be missed.

“Alvin and the Apple Tree” by Orson Scott Card is an alternate history of the American frontier circa 1820 in which Alvin Smith meets Johnny Appleseed. Appleseed asks Alvin if he is a “primitive Christian” which sets off a discussion that leads into Appleseed informing him the nearby community of Piperbury is “a godly town.” Alvin travels on to Piperbury where according to a Mrs. Turnbull who he meets at a funeral procession, it’s “the wickedest place in all the world.” He learns that over a number of years, many residents had committed suicide and were buried in one of two well-populated cemeteries. After Alvin unravels the hamlet’s mysteries, he returns to confront the legendary Appleseed. This story is a genuine page turner but seems heavy handed and somewhat out of place with this particular type of weird western collection. Fans of Mr. Card (Ender’s Game) and his acclaimed The Tales of Alvin Maker will undoubtedly disagree and be thrilled by this latest adventure, the first in over a decade.

In the wonderfully titled “Madam Damnable’s Sewing Circle” by Elizabeth Bear, an eclectic group of parlor ladies (called seamstresses here) take in a gunshot-wounded soiled dove turned vigilante named Merry Lee and a steadfast Indian girl named Priya. The sewing circle soon learn they have their hands full against Peter Bantle and his hardcases intent on recovering his flesh property. Bantle sports a contraption, “black leather truncheon,” on his left arm made up of copper coils and bare wires—in a nutshell, an electric glove used to burn his whores and his enemies. The crisp atmosphere of this story weaves real, if somewhat forgotten, Old West personalities like Julia Bulette and Madame Damnable with the rich voice of protagonist Karen Memery (“like memory only spelt with an e”). Many Western writers falter badly when attempting to write the lingo of the times, but Ms. Bear succeeds with Memery and I, for one, hope for more stories featuring this full-bodied and refreshing character.

The final story in the collection, “Dead Man’s Hand” by Christie Yant, relates a tale familiar to nearly all Western fans: the murder of James Butler Hickok by John McCall in Deadwood on August 2, 1876,(sidebar: in a nice turn, the collection is dedicated to Wild Bill) starting with Hickok’s fateful card hand and a newspaper account. Then, Ms. Yant tells the tale again, but this time because “The hand you’re dealt is not the one that would have been dealt a moment before,” Hickok’s hand has changed and so has the newspaper account. This continues on for several more retellings, each with a different outcome for Hickok and McCall. “Dead Man’s Hand” is a nice Twilight Zone style coda to this satisfying collection.

There are 16 more stories, making 23 in all, in Dead Man’s Hand: An Anthology of the Weird West. Additional authors include:  David Farland, Mike Resnick, Seanan McGuire, Charles Yu, Beth Revis, Alastair Reynolds, Rajan Khanna, Tad Williams, Jonathan Maberry, Kelley Armstrong, Tobias S. Buckell, Jeffrey Ford, Ken Liu, Laura Anne Gilman, Walter Jon Williams, and Fred Van Lente.

Like most collections, some entries are more entertaining than others but every narrative is strong and held my attention. Often I was left trying to figure where the author was headed and more often than not I was wrong. And that’s always welcomed.

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Edward A. Grainger, aka David Cranmer, is the author of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles series and recently edited BEAT to a PULP: Trails of the Wild.

Read all posts by Edward A. Granger for Criminal Element.