We open on young Jim Negrey, near death and sun-dried in the Nevada desert in 1869. He and his horse, Promise, stumble along — Jim murmuring platitudes to the spooked animal and flashing back to that what he done run from.
We’ve seen this film, right? He’ll come upon a town, a town with a stark contest between good folks and bad guys. And he’ll earn the grudging respect of the sheriff, and after a series of escalating conflicts the big showdown will come. Guns will pop, villains will fall.
So, yeah: That happens here, mostly. R.S. Belcher’s first novel, THE SIX-GUN TAROT, lovingly follows the familiar paths into town, and its opening portends a destination you’ll see coming a mile off. But hold your horses. This isn’t merely a rock-solid Western.
Jim’s rescued by a half-Indian deputy who talks with — and is kin to — coyotes. The town Golgotha is beset by varied haunts and hassles. Sheriff Jon Highfather carefully tends a salt circle around a grave outside of town, hoping to contain some unnamed evil, while other named evils (or sorceries) abound: a piece of jade allows the holder to see and speak with the dead; up on Argent Mountain, the shanties and saloons are seeing more violent outbursts than normal, some strange black ichor snuck into the liquor supply; a fallen angel has watched over the town since its prehistory, ‘though he’s lately gone native and gotten into the thick of local disputes.
And — the big Bad — something stirs at the bottom of the abandoned mine, one of the Old Ones, seeking rebirth …
THE SIX-GUN TAROT is to Westerns as John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is to ’80s action flicks in America. With delirious abandon, Belcher throws all kinds of B-movie tricks at the wall: a little bit of war-in-heaven backstory, Lovecraftian horror, multicultural folk traditions and the dusty traditions of a classic oater.
The novel trades in archetypes — hell, it’s got “tarot” in the title, so what would you expect? — but its familiar protagonists and the expected pathways of the plot belie the confident gene(ric)-splicing and complex storytelling structure. It is a fine, fast, exciting read, full of wit and unabashed pleasure in the mash-ups. And Belcher is a talent to watch; like Carpenter, he trades in conventions, but there’s a technical mastery that demands (and rewards) attention. —Mike Reynolds