I’ve always been a fan of mixing the horror and western genres. Something about the setting of a good, traditional western makes it ripe for elements of horror. Perhaps it’s the lack of technology, the stripping away of the abundant electricity and glowing screens that we all find comfort in these days. Maybe it’s the isolation of those long-ago days, when highways and interstates were nonexistent, and travel was by horseback or on foot and took days instead of hours. These days, if something bad happens on the other side of the world we know about it almost instantly. Back then word traveled mostly by mouth, and bad things could happen the next town over and nobody would know, until maybe that bad thing showed up on their doorstep.
“Adam Price and His Traveling Players,” a group of supposed actors travelling the dusty roads between towns in 1880s Mexico, was one of those bad things. Their ride was a pitch black coach with red curtains, and it looked like a coffin on wheels. And, much like a coffin, it carried death everywhere it went. Cody Wilson and Willet Black know this first hand, as Price and his posse rolled into their little town of Tonuco and turned everything upside down, leaving a lot of blood and bodies in their wake.
Jonathan Janz wastes no time in jumping into action, opening with a literal cliffhanger of a scene and rarely letting up from that first page. We’re four chapters in before there is anything resembling a pause, but Janz has spent the preceding pages skillfully weaving the back story in with the action, so it’s not long before things are off and running again. The result is an epic feel in a story that plays out over just a few days.
Westerns are often boiled down to “good guys” versus “bad guys,” and while Janz’s characterizations are more complex than that, there’s no blurring of the lines between who to root for and who to root against. Price and his band of monsters are stone cold killers who see humans as food, and they feed greedily and without remorse. Wilson is a guy trying to do his best in a terrible situation; he’s in way over his head, but he’s a lot more resourceful and a hell of a lot tougher than he gives himself credit for. (Seriously – this guy takes a worse beating than Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead movies over the course of the book, but he keeps getting back up for more.) And young Willet is a tragic figure that deserves better than all he has to endure.
Dust Devils is a healthy size, but it reads like a book half its page count. It would be easy for the scenes of Price and his crew cutting their way through townspeople to become repetitious, but Janz has a real knack for writing action. Blood spills and sprays in a variety of crazy ways, bodies are torn asunder, and none of it bogs down. At various times I was reminded of movies like Near Dark, From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill to give you an idea of the grit and scope Janz achieves. In other words, this would make a great horror flick, so somebody get on that, okay?
Dust Devils is the most pure fun I’ve had reading a book so far this year. Granted, we’ve got a ways to go in 2014, but the bar has been set. For out-and-out unflinching horror with a strong western feel, you can’t go wrong with this one.