The Shotgun Arcana by R.S. Belcher science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Shotgun Arcana by R.S. Belcher

To get a sense of R.S. Belcher‘s world of The Shotgun Arcana, his follow-up to The Six-Gun Tarot, one need only eavesdrop on the conversation of the seen-it-all residents of Golgotha, Nevada as they watch a wagon wheel away with some mysterious contents:

“Hey, Mutt, what is it this time . . . Another one of them boogeymen? Those black-eyed children? Like the ones that up and took the Summerton family and only left their shadows behind? . . . ”

The crowd began to mutter among themselves.

“Them bat-people again, I bet ya . . . ”

“Hope the buildings ain’t coming alive like last June again . . . ”

“Long as it ain’t those worm things. I still can’t swallow pert near nothing without wanting to upchuck.”

That’s life in a nutshell (a very tip-of-the-iceberg nutshell, believe me; there is a lot of that kind of dialogue throughout the book) in Golgotha, described by one character as: “The terminator between the light and the shadow. That is this place, that’s Golgotha. It drags people here from the light and from the shadow.”

And something very bad indeed is being dragged to Golgotha this time around. In my review of The Six-Gun Tarot, I said the novel had some similarities in tone, style, and content to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and here we get a version of Buffy’s “First Evil,” if the First Evil brought with it not a horde of vampires but an army of the most depraved, violent humans within three thousand miles. Including a Jack-the-Ripper sort who has already infiltrated the town and begun mutilating and killing Golgotha’s young prostitutes.

Set against this evil is the same handful of misfits, loners, widows, widowers, fallen angels, deathless sheriff’s, part-coyote characters we met in The Six-Gun Tarot:

  • Jon Highfather: the town sheriff who, according to rumor, can’t be killed
  • Mutt: sheriff’s deputy and half-breed Native American with a weird family
  • Clay: the taxidermist with no small similarity to Victor Frankenstein
  • Maude Stapleton: a pirate-trained, secret-female-society-member, derringer-toting spitfire
  • Harry: the town’s Mormon mayor with a magic sword and an aggrieved secret lover

Since it’s a sequel, though, we’ve a few new characters in town, including a Pinkerton Man who happens to be a woman and the fallen-angel’s daughter who has tracked down daddy because she believes he has some splainin’ to do. That’s not to mention the brought-back-from-the-dead wife, the seeress, the Ghost Dance-spreading Native American, and, well, you get the picture. I haven’t read a book this packed with odd characters and plot points since, well, since the Six-Gun Tarot. And as with that book, while an argument can be made that a leaner plot, fewer characters, etc. might make for a better crafted novel, and I’m going to make that argument to some extent in just a moment, to be honest, for the most part, I was too busy having fun to care much about it. This isn’t your museum-hopping, boutique-shopping, Marriot-staying vacation of a book. It’s more like your funnel-chugging, night-swimming, 12-in-a-room-including-two-in-the-closet Spring Break kind of book.

So I loved the host of characters and their odd backgrounds, even if their sheer number slighted some sense of depth or made one or two character shifts move a little too quickly. Despite that, I thought Belcher mostly did a nice job of moving these characters forward — in their relationships, in their motivations, in their loss of innocence (for the one or two that still might have had some). I loved the many, many, many references to past odd events in Golgotha, throw-away lines that make you hope Belcher will be coming out with a short-story collection detailing some of those. I loved the one-on-one fight scenes, the dialogue, the humor that runs throughout.

What I didn’t love, really, really did not love, was the lingering detail of the many acts of violence, beginning with the mutilation of that first prostitute. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just a few descriptive moments. That above-mentioned army of evil heading toward Golgotha has a good number of its soldiers given their own short chapters to show us just how depraved, just how violent they are. Granted, there are fewer than a dozen, and as mentioned they’re short, but they just felt disturbingly unnecessary to me (especially on top of the graphic detail within the Golgotha narrative) and to be honest, I just skipped the last few, feeling I’d done my job as a reviewer already. You’ve been warned.

Outside of that major issue, I was quite happy to be back in Golgotha (great place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there) and can’t wait for the next installment (here’s hoping there is in fact a next installment). Highly recommended, but with a stronger than usual caveat.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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