The key to this unusual weird western by Josh Malerman, author of the Bram Stoker Award-nominated 'Bird Box', is its title, which I initially misinterpreted. No, this isn't about a Christmas hymn written in a picturesque hamlet called Unbury or by an eccentric vicar of the same name. It's actually the task at the heart of the novel, owned by a notorious outlaw named James Moxie, whom we follow throughout.
You see, Moxie once knew and loved a lady named Carol Evers, but he left her once he realised that he couldn't deal with her condition. She has a habit of falling into deathlike comas, during which her vital signs decrease to zero and most examining her would believe her dead. That she's as right as rain when she emerges from them a few days later is less important at that point than the fact that it's a dangerous affliction. She could fall into one while walking down the stairs or crossing the road, so prompting gravity or a passing carriage to provide the death that the comas only mimic.
Now, Carol has told precious few people about this condition and, with the death of her friend and confidante, John Bowie, her husband Dwight believes that he's the only one left who knows. That's a crucial belief, because he's a gold digger and, while he might not have the balls to kill Carol himself, he's more than willing to pronounce her dead when the very next coma springs itself upon her and consequently order her to be buried alive.
Of course, James Moxie knows too and, fortunately for Carol, her maid, Farrah Darrow, sends word to him of her death, knowing only that she and the outlaw had had something of a relationship long ago and that he might wish to attend her funeral. His first assumption on reading the note is naturally that she's about to be buried alive, by mistake if not by malice, and so he rides hard to get there before that happens. As it's a two-day ride from Mackatoon to Harrows down a dangerous Trail, he's well aware that he might not make it in time, in which case, his job will be to, as the title suggests, unbury Carol.
This is hardly a run-of-the-mill story, even within the genre of the weird west, in which imagination tends to run riot, so kudos to Malerman for the unusual framework over which he builds his novel. He also deserves a great amount of praise for an approach that relies less on gunplay and more on an ongoing psychological torment, for three characters in particular. Moxie is tormented by the belief that he might be too late to save the woman that he realises now that he still loves. Dwight discovers that Moxie knows and so assumes that the outlaw is coming for him as much as for Carol. What's more, while Carol cannot move, she's entirely aware of everything unfolding around her, which perhaps is the greatest torment of all.
Around all of this, Malerman builds a substantial mythology in a number of ways. Moxie isn't just riding a trail, he's riding The Trail, a road with a power to it, sourced from the many who have been born or died along its length. Moxie is a notable legend too, having perpetrated 'the trick in Abberstown' in which he shot a man dead during a duel without ever drawing his gun. The paranoid Dwight, fearing Moxie, hires a vicious killer with artificial legs to take down the outlaw before he reaches Harrows. And there are others, on the road or in the towns that are dotted up and down it, who collectively add to this mythology.
I really enjoyed this approach. Today, of course, the Wild West is a thing of legend, even though we're only a century and change adrift from it. The iconic moments are told and retold, always slightly differently, until the truth is obscured or entirely gone. What really happened at the OK Corral? We've been given so many answers that we have no idea which one, if any, might be the truth. After all, as 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' taught us, 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.' Malerman is keen to tell the facts and he gives us an ending that flouts that quote but, in doing so, he creates a whole slew of legends up and down the Trail.
I appreciated the characterization, too. James Moxie is really the hero of the piece and he appears to be a good man, though even the back cover calls him an 'infamous outlaw'. There are villains, plural, beyond Dwight Evers, the gold digging husband. He has a partner in crime, who remains in the shadows as much as she can and she knows them well, able to haul out of them further villains as needed to take care of business, Smoke being merely the most obvious. Carol herself is a hero, even though she hardly moves throughout the book, ensconced as she is within a coma, and amazingly enough, she gets a story arc. And there are other heroes too: a solid sheriff who likes his loose ends tied up properly and an undertaker whose hunches are generally good ones.
And, of course, everything unfolds to the backdrop of an unseen ticking clock, because, however much Dwight's story starts to unravel, his wife is ever closer to being buried alive and James Moxie is ever closer to being too late to save her. 'Unbury Carol' may be a rather lyrical approach to a suspense novel but it's no less suspenseful for that.
It's worth mentioning also that Carol is a rather capable lady, merely one placed into a position where she's literally incapable of doing anything, forced there by cruel circumstance rather than anything that she did or failed to do. To any control freak, that's a truly scary situation and one that threatens to overwhelm all the other things going on. It helps to render this novel less a traditional weird west story, if such a creature exists, and more a combination of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathanael Hawthorne, set on a mythical western Trail that could be haunted by the Devil himself. ~~ Hal C F Astell