Book Review: Strange Trails, edited by James Palmer

strange trailsA while back I offered to review Strange Trails, an anthology edited by James Palmer. I’m not sure what to call this genre, other than, of course, strange. It’s a Wild West, all right, with robots, ghosts, bound spirits, Pinkerton Men, and a large dollop of Lovecraftian Horror. I grew up reading Western novels by the likes of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, and watching the Duke on the small screen with my Dad, who was a huge fan. Reading these stories I am struck by how they remind me much more of the movie versions of the Wild West, and some of the more modern interpretations, at that, not the old White Hat/Black Hat films.

The collection opens with Mr. Brass and the Master of Serpents, set in what seems to be an alternate history of the Old West. Aliens have done dreadful things to the Earth, and Mr. Brass himself was a pinkerton man before his death, revival in a mechanical body, and now he is still tracking down the evil cultists who would awaken Old Gods and destroy civilization. I really liked the old sheriff in this tale, he reminded me of the heroes of Westerns gone bye, doing what was best for his town, even if it killed him.

“Sin and Lillies,” by Tommy Hancock and Morgan Minor, is a ghost story, rambling, perhaps over-elaborate in descriptions, and the Lillie of the title (it’s not a misspelling) is a woman bound to her knucklebones which ride in the pocket of an evil man from town to town. The sheriff in this story falls for the beautiful woman only he and her keeper can see, and tries to win her freedom, so she can die fully.

When I started “The Mechanical Heart: A Tale of Julia Holst and the Weird West,” by Barry Reese, I had to stop and go look up Julia Holst. I was curious if she was some famous figure I hadn’t heard of. I didn’t see anything, so perhaps this is just an attempt to make the story look old-fashioned. The tale of a historically improbable figure, the author plops a blonde-cheerleader type into the role of gunfighter and she has a pet horse, and a sword. Sure, why not, these stories are odd enough, a sword that fell from Mars to Earth, and was owned by Attila the Hun fits right in with Conan, or Burrough’s Pellucidar stories. A clockwork man found in a defunct mine sets her off on a peculiar quest.

The final story, a novella by the length of it, I believe, is “The Eye of Ulutoth,” by Joel Jenkins. Reminiscent of Jack London’s tales of the South Seas, this saga takes place on a ship, which a cowboy and his Sux-Gun Susannah board, in search of dire Ulutoth, whom they hope to hill before he wakens to bathe in the blood and destruction of humanity. Only one of them will return to solid ground…

Stories of grave-robbing gone wrong, stories populated with magicians, albinos, strange creatures both earthly and aethereal, this collection has it all. For fans of the Weird West, it will doubtless be an enjoyable addition to the small but burgeoning genre. I know I learned a lot, reading it, and things I won’t soon forget. Like if you are seeking the Ankh of Ra, forget about it, lest you wind up on The Mummy Train. If you want to make a quick buck, listen to your gut and don’t tunnel sideways into a man’s grave, when that man was known for his uncanny goings-on.

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