Novel November

Hell's Bounty

by Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Hell's Bounty by Joe R. Lansdale and John L. Lansdale

Man, does this book drive forward hard and fast,guns blazing, hooves pounding, spattering blood and scattering zombie brains in a wide spray. It is a hell of a ride. Sure, zombies are all the craze these days, have been for a while, but no one—and I mean absolutely no one—handles zombies like Joe Lansdale. Here we have zombies in the wild west, with a little Lovecraft Cthulhu thrown in because why the hell not. Joe teams up with his brother John for this tale. I'm interested to know how the collaboration came about and how the writing duties were divvied up. It seems Joe R. has the skills and historical knowledge to handle this gig on his own. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to work with his brother. Who am I to question?

The story starts in the frontier town of Falling Rock. More precisely, in the saloon, where trouble often starts. A bounty hunter and unsavory character named Smith walks in and almost immediately butts heads with an even more unsavory gunslinger named Quill. They get along like a pair of starving dogs vying for the same pork chop and commence to shooting. In an unexpected (as long as you haven't read this review or the jacket flap) turn of events, Smith is killed in dramatic fashion and sent right on down to Hell.

The Lansdale boys present an impressive version of Hell. It's a saloon decorated with images of fornication where you take a number and wait for your punishment to begin. Everyone pulls the number 13, but everyone knows when they're next. The bartender, none other than the Prince of Darkness himself, offers the newly-dead Smith a proposal. Seems one of Hell's demons is up on Earth with plans to open a gateway for the Old Ones to enter our reality and plunge the carefully balanced world of light and darkness into total chaos. Because of rules that Snappy (the devil's preferred moniker in this incarnation) assures Smith must be followed, only a mortal can interfere with the rogue demon's plan and stop the Old Ones from ruling Earth. So it's either be resurrected and assist the devil in his vendetta, or stay and face the ugly torments in the backroom. We get a peek in that room, and the goings-on back there are grisly.

So Smith takes the offer and is sent back to Earth with three days to foil a wayward demon's plan. Not only is this demon powerful and seemingly invulnerable, he has converted the townsfolk to ghouls, and they roam the town and countryside looking to feed on human flesh. But Smith is not alone in his quest. He joins a band of survivors, plus he's equipped with a pack of cards with which he can summon a posse of dead gunfighters. He also has a horse from hell and an ammo belt full of perpetually refilling silver bullets. Time is against him, and Smith has to use every ounce of will and cleverness to battle hordes of hungry undead. He's also battling a few of his own personal demons. It's a quest for justice and personal redemption, slathered in gore and dusted with gunpowder.

While Joe Lansdale's Hap and Leonard books often slow down for pontificating and introspection, Hell's Bounty barely lets up for a breather. Once Smith returns from Hell on his mission, it's balls-to-the-wall shooting, burning, and whipping. We get some situational humor as the zombies apply their limited intellect to chasing Smith's crew, but most of the humor of the Hap and Leonard books is lost here. But that's not a detriment. This is a different kind of book. The action pieces all have their own unique settings and outcomes. The Lansdale brothers never leave you guessing what's happening or where any of the players are. You'll find the last few sequences to be quite busy, but every paragraph grounds you perfectly in place so you never lose track of the characters or the flow of the action.

There are a few breaks for character interaction and growth. Through dialog, we get inferences of Smith's past life. He's killed men, women, and children, served only himself for years. His desire to change and make amends for his evils is real and heartfelt. We find ourselves invested in his search for atonement.

We can agree that zombies are easy villains. That's why they're so popular now. You can shoot, burn, and blow them up without offending any race or nationality. Westerns of the past would pit gunslingers against Indians and pop off “savages” with no thought of moral implications. But zombies aren't real, and mowing them down en masse won't raise anyone's objections. Interesting to think that the man responsible for the popularity of modern zombies, George Romero, actually used them to make social comments on our society's race relations and addiction to consumption. Now zombies are safe targets, nothing more than obstacles in our heroes' way. Don't get me wrong, I love this book, and I love zombies. But maybe one day they'll regain the symbolism they once had. Till then, keep a handy stash of gasoline, and keep your pistols full of silver.

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