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Off On A Tangent: Novel Reviews
by Dave Truesdale

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Off On A Tangent: Novel Reviews columns.]

The Six-Gun Tarot
R.S. Belcher
Tor, 364 pages

The Six-Gun Tarot

[Reviewer's note: Please be advised that following this review there will be a short Q&A with the author and news of a book giveaway dealing with an aspect of The Six-Gun Tarot.]

Those yearning for something different, something devilishly outré enough to whet their starved and ever-hungry imaginations, but most especially for those who enjoy dark fantasies suffused with the likes of a seductive, evil goddess, an ancient tome, ichor-oozing zombies, and a cosmic cult of Lovecraftian evil, should enjoy first-time novelist R.S. Belcher's The Six-Gun Tarot. The fact that it's set in the Old West of 1869 in an out-of-the-way semi-ghost town named Golgotha only adds to the initial curiosity factor.

The story begins with fifteen-year old Jim Negrey and his horse Promise on their last legs-- down to their final few drops of water and Promise with a lame leg -- as they trek across the 40-mile Wasteland of Nevada desert in hopes of reaching Virginia City and a job on the railroad. Jim is on the run for a terrible crime for which he will surely be hung if caught, the only thing of worth he owns the artificial (Chinese) jade eye his father has given him. The eye has powers of which young Jim is unaware, but its power can be felt by those in touch with its special magic. Soon Jim and Promise are rescued by two men -- one an Indian -- who have been drawn to the emanations given off by the Eye. It is explained to him that there is the "...old medicine, the first powers. The things that move like crazy smoke and fever dream through the worlds. White men call it magic -- a little word to hide all the world's truth behind." Young Jim's doubts soon begin to recede as he encounters the trickster, talking coyotes with which one of Jim's rescuers converses, they too being drawn to the power of the Eye Jim carries.

Recovering in the back of his rescuers' wagon, Jim is trundled to the nearest town -- Golgotha. Once a thriving silver mining town, Golgotha is now a broken down relic of old-timers and leftovers from the town's heyday (the enigmatic Chinese who live in their own quarter, drunken cowhands, miners), somehow scraping out a bare existence. Through Jim we are introduced to several of the major players who carry the brunt of the story, among them the sheriff who cannot be killed and who sports rope burns around his neck from a failed hanging; a kindly old man beloved of the townsfolk whose grief over the death of his soulmate, his wife, has led him to keep her head alive in a jar of special chemicals in the back room of his shop and to whom he talks on a regular basis despite the admonitions from his dead wife's best friend, the widow Proctor, to let her go; and the mayor of Golgotha, a Mormon with two wives but who is not-so-secretly having a homosexual affair with the saloon's piano player (said mayor also holds secret knowledge of a hidden tome of dark lore brought to the plot later on). Other major and minor characters are introduced along the way and given interesting personal back stories figuring in the mix (one owns a copy of Frankenstein, for instance), including the new mine owner who believes recent evidence points to the mine not yet being played out -- and whose unwitting efforts threaten to unlock a Power whose only goal is the total eradication of Existence itself. Whew, what a stew, and that's only the half of it.

It's not as if any of this is new to Golgotha or its inhabitants. There is a reference to a giant bat swooping in and carrying off someone in times gone by, and the immortal sheriff keeps silver bullets locked away for special occasions. But the onset of recent events portends something far beyond anything this strange town has experienced before. The town has now become a nexus for Evil, to the point where one character explains to another why it is that Golgotha attracts ghosts and monsters:

  "Why is Golgotha the town where owls speak and the stones moan? Why is this the town that attracts monsters and saints, both mortal and preternatural? Why is our schoolhouse haunted? Why did Old Lady Bellamy wear the skins of corpses on the new moon? How did old Odd Tom's dolls come to life and kill people? Why do you still pour a ring of salt around that unmarked grave and how did this little ditch of a town become the final resting place of some of Heaven's treasures? There is a presence here...older than mankind, older than the world and stars, older than gods. Imprisoned here, it still has power over what we laughingly call reality. It sleeps a fitful sleep and dreams of only darkness and death."  

And there are those in Golgotha wanting to cut that dark presence loose, and therein hangs the meat of the tale. The "presence" being Uktena, a serpent older than Death, who is angered at God for bringing Life into the Universe. The "presence" is the Greate Olde Wurm that has taken control of certain people to further its ends on Earth, one of whom is Holly Pratt, one of the pair of wives of the mayor, Mormon Harry Pratt. Holly has become the Black Madonna, the distilled essence of female sexuality, She who now seduces the menfolk, turning them into murderous zombies -- the "Stained" -- who drip black ichor from every bodily orifice. It's obvious we're pretty much into Lovecraft territory here, when the ultimate battle is nigh at hand, with people running for their lives, the town becoming engulfed in flames, and the chanting cult deep within the bowels of the mine calling forth That Which Shall Not Be Named, but which must be stopped or the universe will cease to exist.

Belcher, to his credit, takes the essence of the iconic Lovecraft mythos of the Old Ones wanting to rule the cosmos a step further. His over-arching Evil desires the destruction of Existence itself (which would seem a tad counter productive when you think about it, but you have to admire his attempt to create an Evil Beyond Which There Is No Greater, right?). And so, homage being paid to HPL on several levels (some not mentioned here) and with a few rather stock scenes (done well, nonetheless), it is left to the storyteller to add his own touches, which Belcher does. The setting, the Old West; the quirky characters who actually reveal a depth of humanity and spirit not found in all that many other stories of this variety, witness (for but one example) the nature of love revealed from numerous perspectives: the unrequited, the selfish and unselfish, and love never relinquished. As well, questions of free will and faith are tossed around for good measure. And several cultural (Chinese and Native American) interpretations of magic are now bound together as parts of a greater whole via the explanation of how this story's all-encompassing Evil works.

And finally, an amusing little gem of literary acumen is evident when Belcher shows he knows his stuff when he names the gay, polygamous, Mormon Mayor Harry Pratt. How so? An early reference to Frankenstein has set the stage. Horror movie fans know well that Boris Karloff played Frankenstein's monster in James Whale's 1931 film classic. Karloff's real name was William Henry Pratt. Just as the Frankenstein monster was stitched together from the body parts of others, so too is Belcher's Harry Pratt patched together from the numerous threads of his complex, conflicted life which, with much effort and guilt, he struggles to keep from unraveling. A nice touch.1

1 That both the Frankenstein monster and Harry Pratt can be viewed as sympathetic, misunderstood beings created by forces -- artificial and natural, respectively -- over which they had no control, extends the connection between the two beyond the oblique name reference and will surely provide the erstwhile critic endless fodder upon which to expound. Such comparisons (real or imagined) are the sparks from which academic articles are breathed life (and many a scholarly monster created).

Among several previous jobs, R. S. Belcher served an internship with the Occult Crimes Taskforce of the Virginia Crime Commission.

There is more to The Six-Gun Tarot than meets the eye and I recommend it to those with an interest in the dark, macabre side of fantastic literature.

Q&A with R.S. Belcher

Well, Rod, what did you think of my discovering that sly name reference between Boris Karloff's real name of William Henry Pratt, and your naming the mayor of Golgotha Harry Pratt, especially given that early oblique reference to Frankenstein? Pretty cool, huh?

RSB: Dave, that was great and the comparison was right on the money...but I didn't plan that. It was naught but a wonderful accident that I will now, of course, shamelessly take full credit for. Thank you.

You're welcome, I think. There were so many different characters in the book, both major and minor, and you managed to sprinkle in numerous historical and character references, some obvious, some more obscure throughout. The book has been out for six months now and has been reviewed many, many times, in places high and low. I imagine readers had a fun time spotting these references.

RSB: Yes, they did. And it was fun noting which reviews mentioned which references. Even so, and after all this time and many dozens of reviews, there is still one reference no one has spotted.

And which would that be?

RSB: It's an Easter egg: someone I had decided on early in the process I wanted connected to the town and when you find out who it is you tend to go "Oh no!"

I'll make you a deal; I have an idea. I've made a long list of characters from the book to see if I could find the "lost" reference. I soon gave up. If you tell me what the reference is, I'll ask your publisher, Tor Books, if they'll offer some free books to those spotting the "lost" reference no one has picked up on. The first person to come up with the specific reference you're referring to wins First Prize: any three 2013 books from Tor. The second person to twig to the reference gets their choice of any two 2013 Tor books. Third Place gets one. Are you in?

RSB: That sounds like fun. I'm in. The historical character in The Six-Gun Tarot that no one seems to have found or mentioned yet is… REDACTED

Wow, thanks, Rod. I'm no history buff but know as much as the next guy and I never would have gotten that one. Trust me, my lips are sealed.

RSB: I'm really glad you enjoyed the book and I want to thank everyone who has supported Six-Gun and said such kind things about it. You guys are great and I'm very lucky and honored to have readers like all of you. I hope you like what's coming down the road next and keep reading.

  Guesses as to the "lost" reference in R.S. Belcher's The Six-Gun Tarot can be emailed directly to Dave Truesdale. One guess per email and only one guess per person. Winners (if any) will be announced Monday, July 15th, 2013 at Tangent Online. Winners will be put in touch with the appropriate person at Tor books to claim their prizes. We wish to express our gratitude and thanks to Rod Belcher and the kind folks at Tor for their enthusiasm, support, and generosity.  

The Resurrectionist:
The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black
E.B. Hudspeth
Quirk Books, 192 pages

The Resurrectionist:<br>The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black E.B. Hudspeth's first book is a handsome coffee table-sized hardcover. Set in 1870s Philadelphia, "a city of gas lamps, cobblestone streets, and horse-drawn carriages," it describes the fictional life of one Dr. Spencer Black and his obsession with proving his theory that mythological beasts such as dragons, satyrs, mermaids, chimaera, and others were the evolutionary ancestors of mankind.

The first third of this 192 page book is given to us in large measure from the letters and journal entries of Dr. Black, along with what the fictional narrator has been able to piece together of his life. The son of a grave robber, young Black follows in his father's footsteps. He attends medical school, makes a name for himself, but then his twisted obsession with nature's biological mishaps -- children born with only hands sprouting from their shoulders and no arms, Siamese twins joined at the head, and other freakish abnormalities -- leads him down a dark, twisted path of experimental science (thoughts of robbing his own father's grave, graftings of parts from one living animal to another, etc.) for which he is universally mocked and disgraced.

Reduced to eking out a living traveling with circuses and freak shows where his stitched-together monstrosities butt heads with normal townsfolk and their religious sensibilities, causing endless riots and sundry other disturbances, Black mysteriously disappears circa 1908, leaving only six copies of his magnum opus, his ideological last will and testament, if you will, to posterity, to which he has given the auspicious title of:

The Codex

Hudspeth, also a fine illustrator, exhibits not only his professional literary skill as demonstrated in the first third of the book, but his artistic abilities here in the remaining two-thirds, for the next 125+ pages showcase full-page, two-tone anatomical drawings of the very beasts Dr. Black believes were the forerunners of mankind. Creatures described and shown include: the Sphinx, a Siren, a satyr, the minotaur, the Hindu Ganesha (a multi-armed, bipedal human with the head of an elephant), a chimaera, cerberus, pegasus, the eastern dragon, the centaur, and the harpy. Each are observed from various views--front, back, side, top, bottom--in exquisitely rendered plates detailing the presumed skeletal structure, arrangement of internal organs, and musculature of each beast, with accompanying general notes as well as specific Latin nomenclature as was the custom of its 19th century medical predecessors such as Gray's Anatomy.

The Resurrectionist is one of those rare items that succeeds both textually and artistically, and no less by the same dually-gifted author/artist. Printed on heavy stock with period-patterned endpapers and (beneath the dustjacket) the wraparound cover board art in the likeness of a journal, credit must also accrue to the Powers That Be at Quirk Books, who have obviously taken the utmost care in presenting this appealing -- but definitely niche -- specialty project in the best possible light. They took a chance and decided to do it right, giving it every chance to succeed from their end, doing the material justice.

The Resurrectionist will most assuredly make for a great conversation starter when entertaining guests (unless you're having the hardline neighborhood preacher, rabbi, mullah or priest with no sense of humor over for dinner), and at just less than the price of any of today's hardcover, non-illustrated novels, it's a financial winner to boot. If fictional gaslight-era histories of a twisted, demented nature (with illustrations) are your cup of tea then I unreservedly recommend this one.

Copyright © 2013 Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

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