Unbury Carol (2018) is billed as a Weird West story, and Josh Malerman has staged it in a world that has the trappings of the mythical American West — stagecoaches, outlaws, “triggermen” and a perilous Trail the outlaws ride. Malerman’s prose is elegant and he manages to create, at least with the character of Sheriff Opal, an authentic sense of rhythm and regional speech. Moments of bizarre imagery startled me and captured my imagination. Overall, though, the many intricately carved pieces just didn’t fit into a congruent whole for me.
Carol Evers is a wealthy heiress in the frontier town of Harrows. She has been married to Dwight Evers for about twelve years. Carol has a condition that drops her into deep comas, so deep that she appears to be dead. Her heart beats once a minute and she may draw two breaths in that time. These episodes often last two or three days, and then she awakens. From Carol’s perspective she is neither dead nor asleep; she is instead falling, awake and alert, through a dark place she calls Howltown, while the rasp of hoarse breathing surrounds her.
Until recently, three living people besides Carol knew of her condition. It’s a bit odd that not one of them is her doctor. As the book opens one of them, her friend John, has just died. Dwight is one of the remaining two. After her friend’s funeral, Carol tells Dwight of her plans to share the truth of her condition with her maid Farrah, in case she should fall ill while Dwight is away. Before she can tell Farrah, she falls into a coma … and then discovers that Dwight intends to bury her and seize control of her fortune.
I liked many parts of Unbury Carol, but I struggled with the story overall. Motivations of characters did not seem clear to me, and I thought there was a large plot gap. Dwight doesn’t kill the comatose Carol when he has a chance. She fell down apparently dead in front of a witness and Dwight has everything going his way, but he’s afraid somehow that he will leave forensic evidence if he suffocates her … even though he has faked a doctor’s certificate of death and no one is going to examine the body closely. Clearly Dwight can’t kill Carol (see the book’s title) but there needed to be a more plausible reason given here. This plot point is crucial for the reader’s suspension of disbelief and I could never get past it.
The book has three storylines. Dwight dithers and the local undertaker and the local sheriff grow suspicious. Meanwhile, outlaw James Moxie, Carol’s former lover and the third person who knows her secret, rides from a town at the south end of the Trail to reach Harrows before Carol is buried. Carol herself struggles in Howltown, gaining more strength and confidence, and facing, finally, the supernatural villain that has set all this in motion. The supernatural villain is convincing and shudder-inducing.
I was definitely rooting for Carol as she fought her way back toward consciousness and life, as each step she made was stymied or blocked by Dwight or by the entity seeking her death. While Moxie’s ride was interesting, it was more episodic and less compelling. The “triggerman” Dwight sends to stop Moxie, named Smoke, was a bizarre specimen indeed. Imagine a twisted version of The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man, who is an arsonist, and that’s Smoke. Smoke, hobbling along on his tin legs, burning people and buildings on a whim, was a frightening and compelling character.
I spoke of the book as being “staged,” and that was the sense I had. Each scene had mystery and tension, but reading this was like watching a stage play, not joining characters in a fully realized world. Unbury Carol uses the trappings of the frontier west. It does not create a world and that limited my enjoyment. I think this was an attempt to make the story mythic in tone, but language missteps, as when Farrah tells Sheriff Opal that Carol “hinted at a pre-existing condition,” intruded on that illusion.
Other than the sheer weirdness of Smoke, my favorite part of this book was Carol’s struggle to escape Howltown. I was with Carol as she fought to move, to change things, and so I was disappointed when her moment of triumph happened off the page and is merely related to us a few pages later. It undercut all the strength and agency Carol had shown.
The jacket copy calls Unbury Carol “a twisted retelling of Sleeping Beauty,” and I see the correspondences. Weird West readers who are willing to fill in the world themselves might enjoy this. While it wasn’t a success for me, Malerman’s writing is good and his ideas are intriguing. I would certainly read something else by him.