I went back to R. S. Belcher's debut novel, 'The Six-Gun Tarot', because I'd enjoyed some of his later books: the 'Nightwise' novels and 'The Brotherhood of the Wheel'. What I found was something even more special than I'd expected: an ensemble piece of a weird western that I'm sure I'll come back to again and again. I couldn't help but wonder, as I turned the final page, how Belcher could out-do it with its first sequel, 'The Shotgun Arcana', or the last in the trilogy, 'The Queen of Swords'.
Well, now I know. This is as patient, if not even more so, than its predecessor; it isn't afraid to either expand its key players or kill them off; and it tackles the biggest question any reader is going to have head on, namely how so much weirdness can settle on one little Nevada town. In my not-so-humble opinion, Golgotha could, or even should, become the location for a TV show. I'm picturing 'The Wild Wild West' phrased like 'Stranger Things', with a big new threat every season and a whole bunch of little ones showing up throughout.
Belcher does explain why this is viable: weirdness has a habit of congregating in and around Golgotha because of the nature of what's kept prisoner underneath it. We got to know about some of that in the last book, but there's a lot more here and I'm sure the author hasn't introduced us to all of it yet. After all, Malachi Bick, who is far more than he might initially seem, has been around rather a long time doing a job given to him by God himself. He's had plenty of time to imprison things, not least what 'The Six-Gun Tarot' told us about. Yes, you should read that before continuing here! Thank you for asking.
After a brief prelude with the Donner party, given a supernatural element here that sets up the book, we kick off in Golgotha in 1870, a year after the events of the first novel. I love how Belcher peppers this one with hints of adventures in between, lost episodes of that TV show if you will, like the bat-people, the living buildings or the worm things. No, we're not told any more than that; you can imagine as well as I can! Jon Highfather isn't here yet; the possibly immortal sheriff is in New Orleans wrapping up the hoodoo war of a few months ago by delivering a gris-gris bag containing the souls of four men to someone who can dispose of it properly. He and his men are fond of differentiating between 'trouble' and 'Golgotha-style trouble'. This book is firmly about the latter.
Deputies Mutt and Jim chasing a chupacabra over the roofs of downtown Golgotha is only an aperitif; the real story begins after that chase ends, in the alley next to the Dove's Roost, the town brothel, where one of the girls has been brutally slain. The killer took his time and left 'a dripping spider web made of intestines'. Needless to say, it's only the first killing of many and the investigation into this weird west serial killer continues even as a wilder, larger and more impactful danger takes over. That isn't fully set up until 156 pages in, because this book is even more patient than its predecessor. Let's just say that Bick isn't the only one of his kind left, though it's a good possibility that he may be the only one left who's sane and the creature calling himself Ray Zeal is a great threat to Bick and Golgotha both.
Belcher patiently spends those 156 pages exploring how Golgotha and some of its important (if not prominent) citizens have developed during the prior year. The powers that be remain the same, though Mayor Harry Pratt is facing a tough election. However, relationships are building. Maybe Maude, who's the Widow Stapleton now, and Mutt, hardly a decent pairing on the moral compass of 1870 Nevada, even if she's now a working woman, running a Chinese laundry. Maybe Jim and Becky, a dove, or maybe Jim and Constance, Maude's daughter; it could be first crush and young love. Certainly Auggie Schultz and Gillian Proctor, as they're to be wed. Maybe, as bizarre as it sounds, Clay Turlough and Auggie's deceased wife, Gerta; he is a mad scientist, after all.
Belcher also introduces some new characters, as intriguing as those we already know. Emily Bright arrives in town on the stage, claiming to be Malachi Bick's daughter. Montgomery Quire is Bick's new man running the Dove's Roost; he's utterly composed, covered in tattoos and goes by the Scholar. Both he and Bick are challenged by Black Rowan, the Queen of the Barbary Pirates, new in town from San Francisco. Blind Miles Press seems to be keeping track of a cosmic game of chess within the town's borders, but as a player. And Kitty Warren is an enigma, clearly not just the dove she pretends to be but how much more we have yet to learn.
Given that the back cover blurb mentions it, I can also highlight the 32 new characters who will be riding into Golgotha, each of them a brutal, twisted nightmare. 'The Shotgun Arcana' follows the same principle as 'The Six-Gun Tarot' in giving each chapter the name of a card in the tarot deck, representing the character it highlights, but each of these 32 psychopaths is introduced in a chapter entitled The Three of Swords; they each have their unique quirks and fetishes, but they're all occupying the same role in proceedings.
What surprised me here is how polite this book is, given that it digs deep into the sort of nightmares that are created by people when they're damaged enough. Sure, these 32 whackjobs being summoned to Golgotha for nefarious purposes are cannibals, serial killers, sexual deviants, assassins, mad scientists and their ilk, but the author remains polite and matter-of-fact about it all. The characters get emotional, but he never does, and that sets us apart from the action. We may care about the town and some of the characters who live there, but we don't share their trepidation as the horrors come a-calling.
As with 'The Six-Gun Tarot', I'm stunned at how much I'm not mentioning here. While I'd love to see a Golgotha TV show, I'm amazed that I'm unable to find even a Golgotha Wiki. This series deserves one because there's so much in these books that's worthy of exploration that, if you like weird westerns and you've read this far without buying these books, you should pause right now and go take care of that. You'll be hooked enough to catch up by the time I read and review 'The Queen of Swords' next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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