It's weird west time again, courtesy of another Science Fiction Trails book, this one a shared universe anthology of short stories. Riley sent a variety of writers a brief description of the fictional town of Dry Gulch and ten of its key residents, then let them at it. This book includes a dozen examples of what they conjured up out of that common grounding.
Just so you're not left behind, the town of Dry Gulch is in Colorado, maybe fifty miles from Denver. It's 1881 and the gold mine that built the town has played out but there's a new mine up and running that's working in zinc. One running gag is that not one single person in Dry Gulch knows what zinc is. I should add that this is the weird west, so the characters are a little wider than the usual stereotypes. Sure, there's a marshal, a town drunk and a fine young lady who runs the Dry Gulch Saloon, but there's also a four foot alien with green skin and glowing orange eyes who plays her piano whenever he's in town. It's that sort of place, Dry Gulch.
As you might imagine for an anthology from a small press, the quality of the stories on offer is highly variable, but even the worst of them have points in their favour and the best are delights. What surprised me most is perhaps that the best ideas and the best gags are spread roughly evenly between the greater and lesser stories. The most obvious common factor is fun.
The best story is surely Henry Ram's 'A Hanging to Remember', which features the best idea. A stranger arrives in Dry Gulch and discovers the majority of the townsfolk watching the man who they hanged the night before still on the end of his rope and wondering why he doesn't die. Everything makes sense, an abundance of the core characters are logically present and the twist is good and proper. We even learn that the stranger comes from a town by the name of Name Pending. It's great stuff.
The worst thing about Ram's story is that he runs a little wild with it in a way that would have affected other stories and completely fails to do so, as none of the other writers knew what he did. I was ready for that to become a big issue across the board, this writer contradicting that, but it isn't too much of a problem.
Nobody else, for instance, contradicts Raymond Broadbeard's origin story for Kuto, that piano playing alien. Nobody really breaks what Davide Mana writes about the ghosts that town drunk Henry Steelman sees. Most of the writers go with a new character arriving in town from somewhere else, which makes sense in this context. It's a notably safe way to go, like an old television show that runs its regulars through whatever the guest stars prompt.
The best written of the stories may be 'Gideon Trumbull's Invention' by Jill Hand, even though the story itself doesn't really do much. It features a mad inventor (or more likely cheap scam artist) who comes a cropper in Dry Gulch but it's mostly a way to play with a couple of its core characters. What she does well is to contribute excellent prose using a solid command of language.
If Ram's story isn't also the most fun, Patrick Dorn's 'Six Toes in a Boot' would have to take that crown. Its token visitor is the Sundown Kid, a wild and wonderful name for a vampire bounty hunter hired by the church to return a toe. You'll need to read the story to understand why, not just because I'm not going to spoil it for you but because I don't want to spoil the hilarity that ensues as Dorn's characters explain it.
Many of the writers, including Riley himself, aim to include most of the ten stock characters, though I'm not sure anyone actually manages all of them. A few focus on just one and I was surprised to find that the drunk, Henry, was apparently the most popular. A lot of writers focused on him and quite a few did so with great humour. Mana even rejects the 'pathetic loser' description and crafts him into more of a 'sad victim'. He's clearly a busy drunk.
The second most frequently used character is Wendy Washer, who runs the Dry Gulch Saloon. She isn't focused on as much but everyone apparently wanted to fit her into their story somewhere. Dorn even hints at some depth beyond the stock description, but doesn't go any further. Easily the least used is Mrs. Duncan's cat, Fluffy, though John Howard puts her to good use, stealing the front page of the town paper every day from a murder.
While the book succeeds in many ways, not least of which being the sense of fun that runs the dozen stories through, there are problems. The two that I would call out run oddly counter to each other. The first is that this isn't a particularly long book and I'd have loved to continue reading the takes on Dry Gulch of other writers. The other is that the quality does tail off late in the book, suggesting that these aren't the top twelve stories sent in but the only twelve.
Hopefully Riley will return to Dry Gulch for another volume, but send out to a larger set of authors so that he can pick and choose which stories should fit in More Tales from Dry Gulch. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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