Having thoroughly enjoyed R. S. Belcher's recent worktwo 'Nightwise' books and a mostly unrelated novel, 'The Brotherhood of the Wheel'it's about time I looked backwards and checked out what set him on the road. 'The Six-Gun Tarot' is the first book in his 'Golgotha' series, to be followed by 'The Shotgun Arcana' and 'The Queen of Swords'. It's a weird western and it's a far more patient read than I expected.
The 'Nightwise' books in particular are full of urgency. Laytham Ballard is a great character but he's not one to sit around. He has to be doing something, even if it's poking a stick into a hornet's nest to see what damage he can do to himself. This book, on the other hand, is very patient indeed, with a slow-burning story that unfolds over almost 400 pages according to a very careful structure. Each chapter is named for a card in the tarot deck and it's quickly obvious that each is representative of a character in the pivotal town of Golgotha. I wonder if a deep knowledge of the tarot would help us to interpret their roles in the story to come. It certainly seems as if Belcher was aiming for that, but he lets it fall slowly into place for the rest of us.
Initially, this is a western. Golgotha is a town in Nevada, just beyond the 40-Mile Desert, and the year is 1869. We arrive there with Jim Negrey, a fifteen-year-old with his own wanted poster because he shot a man dead in Albright, albeit for the best of reasons. He's struggling through the desert with his horse, Promise, in search of Virginia City and a job on the railroad that might start him a new life; but he finds something else, something very different indeed, because this book gradually betrays its sensibilities as not just a western but a weird western. No less a writer than Mike Resnick has said that, when it comes to weird westerns, 'There's no better place to start.' I have a feeling he might be right.
For fifty pages or so, we explore this western setting and count up the weird elements. Jim is rescued from an early grave in the 40-Mile Desert by Mutt, a power-sensing Native American who serves Golgotha as a deputy. Jim carries with him a gemstone that his father wore in his empty eye socket, which has a power to it that Mutt can't fail to notice. The Indian works for Jon Highfather, an apparently immortal sheriff. It isn't just that he has the belief that, while his time may well come, it isn't coming yet; it's that so do a lot of others.
There are many other people in town who have a part to play in the story to come, but we get to know them as regular folk first and only gradually learn their weirder sides. Maude Stapleton is clearly not just the banker's wife, for example, but we don't learn what else she is for quite a few chapters, starting in the one entitled 'The Queen of Swords'. Sometimes those names are telling! Reverend Ambrose is a wild preacher man, new in town, who has the strange talent of driving members of his flock mad. Auggie, a genial German who runs the general store, keeps his wife Gerta's head in a jar, still alive through the technology of a local mad scientist. He doesn't see it as weird, I should add; he just loves her so much that he's unwilling to let her go.
And, trust me, I'm only scratching the surface here, because Golgotha is a really weird place and not just because Jim discovers that there are Chinamen there, a race he'd never previously encounteredthey, and their local leader, Che'ng Huang, have a part to play as well. Belcher conjures up such an ensemble cast that we almost feel like a room above the Paradise Falls saloon has our name on it and we can sit back over rotgut whisky and a deck of cards downstairs to figure out who's playing which part.
For instance, Harry Pratt is the Mormon mayor of Golgotha and, as the title of his chapter tells us, he's one of the Lovers. However, the other isn't his first wife, Sarah, for she's the Queen of Pentacles, and it isn't his third wife, Holly, who's the Empress. There's a game in motion here and we're tasked not only with figuring out the instructions but the players. We need to identify which characters have meaning before we can guess at what those meanings might be. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle that has too many pieces. Which ones come with the puzzle and which ones can we safely disregard?
What's so fascinating is that everything's normal until it isn't. If you walked into Golgotha, you'd see a regular Wild West town but, if you have any magical affinity, you might just feel that there's something more beneath the surface. There's weirdness in every home, it seems, but it's never overt, it's always hidden away with many secrets held close to many chests. That means that, when someone mysteriously reopens the played-out silver mine up on Argent Mountain and things start to get strange, it isn't just us who struggle to figure out that jigsaw puzzle; the town's collection of authority figuresSheriff Highfather, Deputy Mutt and Mayor Prattall find themselves doing exactly the same thing.
The weirdness comes in a variety of flavours, not all of them commonplace. Sure, there's Lovecraftian terror here, in the grand scheme of things and in the details'The King in Yellow' is playing in town at Mephisto's Playhouse and Showcase and the preacher's full name is Ambrose Ashton Smithbut lots of authors are playing with Lovecraft's worlds nowadays. Not many are also playing with Native American mythology, such as the legend of Uktena, a great snake with a diamond crest called Ulun'suti, which comes into play here, recounted by trickster god Coyote for good measure. Those few that might touch both those sources probably won't add Mormon prophecy too, but Belcher does and it all makes for a heady mix.
And I'm not even going to tell you what else he adds fifty pages into the novel that takes us onto a whole new level of scale. Let's just say that Belcher explores a lot of ground here, justifying the ambition that he poured into what I believe was his first published novel. This could have played out as a standalone book, as it tells a complete story, but there are others to come and, given what happens in this one, they're going to have to be truly spectacular to one-up 'The Six-Gun Tarot'. I should have read this a long time ago. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles in this series click here
For other titles by R.S. Belcher click here