I don’t know if I’ve seen a book as packed with ideas, tropes, storylines, and genres as The Six-Gun Tarot, by R.S. (Rod) Belcher. To give a rough idea, here is a mere sampling of what’s in the mix: Native American coyote mythology, zombies, a seemingly unkillable sheriff, Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos, Western genre tropes, acupuncture, Lilith mythos, steampunk, a re-examination of Christian creation myth, romance, Mormonism, Civil War stories, horror, ghosts, pirates (OK, only briefly mentioned, but still), Chinese creation mythology, hidden tunnels, reanimation, hidden pasts, assassins, hidden sexuality, evil preachers, hidden affairs, angels — Fallen and fallen — and, well, you get the idea. And remember, this is a “sampling.”
Is it too much? You know, I’m just not sure. You’d think it would be. You’d think somebody — an editor, a good friend — might have said, “Ya know, Rod, I’ll give you the angels, female pirate assassins who live for centuries, and a shambling zombie horde, but do you need the talking coyote and huge tentacle beastie?” If I were to step back and look at it with a critical eye, I’m sure I’d say, “Focus, people! We need more focus!” But you know what? I want that talking coyote. And the zombies. And the local taxidermist/inventor/reanimator/unrequited lover. And the derringer-toting, martial-arts-knowing, trained-by-a-200-year-old-female-pirate character. And the sheriff who has yet to find his day to die. And. And. And.
So, the heck with playing it safe. You go girl! Er, boy. Rod. Sometimes there’s something to be said for just plain exuberance, for swinging for the fences rather than laying down the bunt. And so while in some ways The Six-Gun Tarot would have been a “better” book with some excising of ideas and storylines, I’m not sure it would have been an equally fun one.
The story opens up with a sharp bit of narrative tension: “The Nevada sun bit into Jim Negrey like a rattlesnake,” as 15-year-old Jim and his horse Promise are struggling through the 40-Mile Desert, trying to outrun a Wanted poster on his way to Virginia City, Nevada. Instead, Jim ends up in Golgotha, just the other side of the desert, home to a played-out silver mine and a host of folks with mysterious pasts, the lost and the strange, the outcasts and square pegs that the town seems to call to itself, among them:
- 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 above-mentioned taxidermist
- Maude Stapleton: the above-mentioned derringer-toting woman
- Harry: the town’s Mormon mayor with more wives than he wants
Golgotha, though, is not just a place where strange people end up; it’s also a place where strange things happen, as one character relates:
“What do you think is going on here… Why is Golgotha the town where the owls speak and the stones moan? Why is this the town that attracts monsters and saints, both mortal and preternatural? Why is our school house haunted? Why did old lady Bellamy wear the skin of corpses on the new moon? How did old Odd Tom’s dolls come to life and kill people?”
What I love about this passage is that none of those things happen in the book. Any of them would have made for their own novel or at least their own story, yet in Golgotha, they’re just asides because this stuff happens all the time here. It’s like coming into the middle of season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and listening to the characters nonchalantly reminiscing about vampires and praying mantis teachers and demon dogs and oh yeah, that time Buffy died, not the first time, no, the second time…
Besides sharing a penchant for supernatural doings thanks to its own version of the Hellmouth, The Six-Gun Tarot also shares some of that Buffy humor, sometimes driven by situation, sometimes driven by character, sometimes driven by witty dialogue, and as with Buffy, sometimes driven by undermining expectations based on the familiar tropes.
There is a plot here amidst all the chaos. Ancient (and I mean ancient) evil is rising and a plucky gang of outgunned and outmanned folks have to stop it. If that sounds like familiar fantasy, well, trust me, it isn’t. As in, for instance, that plucky band being partially made up of a feminist assassin, a gay Mormon, a half-breed (in more ways than one) Native American, and a kid who walks around with his father’s fake eye in his pocket. This is not your father’s epic journey to a volcano to deliver a ring, believe me.
But I don’t want to get too much into plot because a) there’s so much of it, b) it won’t make much sense and c) I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun trying to make sense of so much plot. Suffice it to say you won’t be bored.
As for the characters, they pretty much won me over across the board. Jim and Mutt, I was immediately drawn to. Highfather took some more time to get to know, though his “can’t be killed” quality was intriguing from the start. Clay started out seemingly simple and opened up into a far more complex character as The Six-Gun Tarot continued. The same is true for Maude, whose mentor, though existing only for a little while in a flashback, is one of the most endearing and lively characters in the novel. And all of them have their secrets and mysterious pasts that are slowly revealed in nice teasing fashion. The villains, save for perhaps the biggest one, fare less well, but that was a minor issue.
The theology adds a nice level of moral complexity to the action/adventure aspect of the tale, along with another layer of structural and narrative complexity. And I truly enjoyed the non-singular aspect of it, what with the different take on basic Christianity, the Mormonism, the Native American mythology, Lilith, and Chinese creation tales. As one character says:
“Gods are nothing without people, and depending on what people you ask you will get many different answers to questions about Heaven and Hell, how the universe was made and how it will end . . . they are all correct; they all exist and have power, within their proper domains…”
I’m not sure I know how that actually works, but I’m OK with that.
The Six-Gun Tarot has a few issues. As mentioned, the bad guys aren’t all that complex (though one especially is downright chilling). The opening sections shift between points of view a little too quickly. And there are a few minor distractions with regard to some writing execution. But none of that made any difference to my enjoyment of this book, my strong recommendation, and my hope at the end that Belcher isn’t finished exploring these characters and/or this setting. After all, I still want to know about Old Lady Bellamy and those corpse-skins…
You can’t create good fantasy by just throwing a bunch of different belief systems into a pot and stirring. You can’t mix, for instance, Chinese belief systems with Mormon lore, or traditional Judeo-Christian mythology with Gnosticism. Everyone knows that, right? Thank goodness R.S. Belcher never got that particular e-mail! In The Six-Gun Tarot, he uses all those beliefs and more to create a dark, suspenseful, captivating adventure.
The Six-Gun Tarot is set in Nevada in 1869. Golgotha manages to be a thriving town, even though the Argent Mountain silver mine that drew people there seems to be played out. Jim Negrey, a young man on the run, nearly dies in the desert before he is discovered by a half-Native American man who calls himself Mutt. Mutt takes Jim into town, but not before the reader discovers that Jim is the possessor of powerful magic, and that Mutt can sense it. Jim is not the only person in Golgotha with a magical artifact. The place is loaded up with them.
The town sheriff, Jon Highfather, has his hands full with a number of unemployed miners who have begun acting strangely. When Mutt, his deputy, investigates he discovers that two newcomers have reopened the mine. They have uncovered something, something so bad that it would make Cthulhu itself think about leaving town.
Belcher uses a mosaic style of story-telling with multiple shifts of point of view. Soon we’ve met a widowed store-keeper who keeps a guilty secret locked up in a cabinet in his room; the wife of a local banker, who is worried over the legacy she has set aside; a perverse minister and his unstoppable deacon; a Mormon mayor who hides not one but two vital secrets about himself, and someone who has been watching Golgotha for a very long time. Mutt himself has a secret he has kept from the townsfolk. Each of these characters is vital to the story.
The take on the various mythologies is fresh. I loved how Belcher wove in the Lilith story, and this book is the first fantasy I’ve read that utilized Mormon mythic artifacts in a satisfying way. The Gnostic cosmology makes a perfect foundation for the tale. I like the idea that it takes the powers from all the groups — Native American magic, immigrant magic, and homegrown magic alike — working together to contain the evil. It’s pretty rare, these days, for a fantasy novel to surprise me, but in The Six-Gun Tarot, the scene where Harry, the mayor, walks into a secret chamber and looks at the artifacts kept there gave me a genuine thrill of surprise.
Except for Maude, the banker’s wife, and Holly, one of the mayor’s wives, women do not do much to advance the plot, but the ones who do appear, like Sarah, Gillian and Gertie, are well-drawn, believable characters. Holly and Maude both are directly involved in the action of the story, although one of them is a victim from the beginning. I empathized with both of these women.
Strangely, the only element that didn’t fit smoothly into this tale was that of the Tarot. Each chapter is named after one of the Tarot cards, and theoretically it fit a focus character in that chapter. Some of these, like the Hanged Man for instance, worked very well, but others felt too much like a stretch. Fortunately, it didn’t really matter because they were only title headings and I felt free to ignore them, especially closer to the end when the action was non-stop.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am going to get the sequel, The Shotgun Arcana, just as soon as I can. Belcher followed his vision and ignored some conventional rules, and it all worked.