Deadman’s Road by Joe R. Lansdale
Deadman’s Road is a collection of pulp stories about a gunslingin’ preacher who wanders the American Old West on a mission from God to seek out and destroy evil creatures. Reverend Jedidiah Mercer relentlessly faces down a town full of zombies, an angry ghoul, a pack of Conquistadores-turned-werewolves, a hell-spawn monstrosity haunting a secluded cabin, and a goblin horde that invades a mining town.
I’m generally not much of a fan of horror fiction. I’ve read fewer then a handful of horror books, but my limited experience is that good horror writers stand out as exceptional storytellers, so I look for the books they write outside the horror genre. Writers like Stephen King, Robert R. McCammon, and Karl Edward Wagner come to mind, and so does Joe R. Lansdale.
On the flip-side, I am a huge fan of Westerns. To me, tales of the Old West are more than just exaggerated fabrications of the American frontier. Westerns are America’s legends and myths, our King Arthur or Odyssey.
So I knew I could go either way with Deadman’s Road.
Anyone who has read Lansdale knows what to expect: gruesome violence and ribald humor that recall the old horror movies of the late 60s and early 70s. It was a time when classic monsters and campy space invaders were losing ground to the living dead, psychopaths, and demon possession. In fact, it’s that same period of horror films that inspired Lansdale to write this story. Low budget, off-the-mainstream cult movies were mixing genres at that time and it’s that same kind of weird fun that Lansdale creates here.
Reading Deadman’s Road, you can tell that Mr. Lansdale is from east Texas. The dialog, mannerisms, culture, and society… it’s like watching The Outlaw Josey Wales, (which, by the way, is probably the best western movie ever made).
However, I eventually became a little bored with the horror elements and the overall darkness that pervades this kind of fiction. There are very few redeeming qualities in most all of the characters, which finally wore me down. But I’m sure horror fans would disagree.
That being said, Reverend Mercer drew me into stories that I otherwise wouldn’t have cared about. He is an extremely complex, contradictory, and flawed character that reminds me of one of my favorite heroes created by another east Texan, Robert E. Howard: Solomon Kane. Both Kane and Mercer are fanatic Christians, obsessed with rooting out and destroying evil. But where Solomon uses God’s mission as an excuse for his wanderlust and violence, Jedidiah is an unwilling soldier. In fact, Reverend Mercer hates God almost as much as he hates himself, but believes his service to be his only path to redemption for a past insufferable sin. He’s hardened and lonesome, and his constant struggle against inner demons makes the reader feel compassion for what would otherwise be an unlikable character. So much so that if there are more stories about Reverend Mercer to follow, I do hope he can one day find peace, if not some measure of happiness.
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