The Six-Gun Tarot
A Tor Book
First Edition: January 22, 2013
Do you like a little bit of the supernatural with your Westerns? Then you are going to love R.S. Belcher’s first novel, The Six-Gun Tarot.
Set in Nevada during the gold rush days of the mid-1800s, R.S. Belcher gives us a work full of tried and true Western icons: the town on the edge of nowhere teetering at prosperity or failure, the young man tragically running from the law, a larger than life sheriff with a backbone as rugged and solid as the West itself, the gritty half-breed deputy whose eyes reflect the wisdom of his people, the slick businessman in black who owns half the town, the mayor who’s clothes are only slightly more grand than his ambitions. (And that’s just a partial list.) But unlike “traditional” Westerns, each of these characters – and in fact, virtually all the characters that have play in this novel – have something slightly (or wildly!) askew in their backgrounds or their recent experiences. Not only is that what sets this novel apart, but also what makes it engaging and highly entertaining.
Young Jim Negrey has almost made it across the arid and deadly 40-Mile Desert when his strength and his horse finally give out – but not his luck. Something about Jim has attracted the attention of the deputy of the nearby town of Golgotha, some scent or touch of an old power. The deputy, known to the townsfolk only as Mutt, is part of a tribe whose native form is distinctly not human: they are coyotes. It was while patrolling in his coyote form that Mutt tracked the elder scent that led him to Jim. Talk of power and magic and such confuses the boy (who is already wary due to a secret he holds that has put him on the lam and is still heartsick at losing his Pa and having to abandon his Ma and sister back in distant West Virginia); all he has are his horse, the clothes on his back, a war relic pistol and his one memento of his family – his dead father’s glass eye.
But Jim definitely needs help, and Mutt and Clay Turlough – the man who Mutt convinced to bring his wagon into the desert to pick up Jim (and who happens to collect dead things) – are kindly enough, if somewhat grizzled and tough, so he allows himself to be taken to town. There he meets Sheriff Jon Highfather, the rugged lawman that legend says can’t be killed, who takes a shining to Jim and hires him to help around the jail unaware but perhaps suspecting that what the boy carries will end up impacting them all as perhaps the only weapon against an ancient evil that rises and threatens to not only sweep away Golgotha, but all of civilization itself.
And that is just the very tip of the iceberg to this story. Throw in angels (fallen and merely disgraced), ancient Oriental mysticism, necromancy, a secret Lilithian society, Mormon legend, occult ritual, zombies and other transmogrifications, salt circles, and an awakened horror that existed before death, and you get the gist of what you will be in for in the pages of The Six Gun Tarot. To put it in perspective, the “tarot” part merely marks the chapters.
To be honest, the very complexity that arose from introducing all these different supernatural plot developments was sometimes difficult to keep up with; at times, it almost felt like the story was falling prey to some kind of literary multiple personality disorder. While each singular development was solid and flowed well within the structure of the individual story, fitting all the pieces together could start to feel like patchwork, especially when the prose was intensely focused on one character and then was changed (occasionally within the same section of a chapter) to something or someone different.
But what saves The Six Gun Tarot from its own ambition is the deft way that R.S. Belcher finally weaves these different stories and their individual freakishness into the fabric of Golgotha, this one, deviant town (and what lies beneath it), and his ability to bind everything together in one unified, dramatic climax. For me, the strongest threads that he uses to do this are the voices of his characters, both major and incidental. They consistently speak with down-home Western twangs, wistful longings, underlying personal strengths, and pitch perfect vocabularies that effortlessly bring to mind the James Arnetts, the Chuck Connors, the Lee Van Cleefs and the Jack Elams that float through our cultural psyche of the genre.
“Clement isn’t in?” Highfather said. “That’s damn odd.”
“Everything about this town of yours is odd, Jon,” Toby said, offering Highfather a pouch of chaw. The sheriff declined and the cowboy stuffed his cheek with the tobacco. “Pretty much always been that way, ain’t it?”
“Yeah,” Highfather said, “but there’s odd and then there is damned odd.”
No matter how fantastic the action might turn, The Six Gun Tarot still balances on the fulcrum of the classic American Western. That remains at the heart of the story. The more modern elements – the relationships, the strikingly contemporary slants to particular characters (especially in the female elements) – still hold on to unspoken frontier codes of honor and oh, so personal justice. Even as the story is pulled towards darkness and catastrophe, the archetypes that are firmly entrenched speak for the need to band together, and draw on human strengths and frailties against all odds.
Marshall Matt Dillon would have been proud.
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