It’s well-known that the best ideas are usually ones that make you slap your forehead and wonder why you didn’t think of them yourself. Things like the Post-It Note, or the Slinky, or even Crocs. They make you stand back and wonder how someone made a new idea that was right under your nose, how they made something you might have seen everyday into an amazing new creation.
The same is true in writing: there are a hundred fantasy books about knights, a thousand sci-fi stories about spaceships, and a million about hard-bitten detectives. The average ones all tend to blend together, but the amazing books make the same old ideas jump out and seem new, even if the parts of it are something you’re well familiar with from other places.
The Six-Gun Tarot is one such book. It’s part of a genre called the Weird West I don’t visit too often, but this one must indeed be a classic of the kind. A mix of Old West characters and weird fantasy on the edge of the frontier, Tarot keeps the pages turning and on each one you will find someone or something old and reliable popping out fresh and new, both relying on those stock characters from the Westerns while remaking and deepening them.
Young Jim Negray is traveling west, trying to make a new life after ending up with bloody hands back home in Kansas. He nearly dies in the desert before being rescued by an Indian named Mutt, who is the deputy serving in a nearby town called Golgotha. Mutt takes young Jim into the tough little burg to meet Sherriff Highfather, who like just about everyone else in Golgotha has a secret and a story to tell. However, on Jim’s first day a man attacks the local general story, screaming that something is coming, something is waking up…..
The cast of characters is varied and well-drawn. Mutt is torn between the traditions of his heritage, the pressures and racism he faces in town, and his own place as a son of Coyote The Trickster. Jim has a bounty on his head and is accused of murder because of his father’s glass eye. Highfather has a doom upon him, one that helps him in his job but forces him to see good people taken by the strangeness that lives in Golgotha. The Mayor lives with a secret and a Holy Mission that seem at odds, the shadowy owner of the town gambling hall may not be human, and a banker’s wife is the latest in an ancient order of warriors.
The town itself is also an important part of the story. References are made to other crises that faced the town and were defeated by Highfather, and a history of strangeness is part and parcel of Golgotha. The latest trouble is rooted in an abandoned silver mine nearby, and though we’re told in the beginning what that trouble is and why it’s there, the fear of its presence and influence over the people isn’t diminished in the slightest.
Everyone in the story behaves with uncomfortable period-realistic racism toward Mutt and the sizable Chinese population in the town, and their slang and behavior seem to fit without being to stereotypical or affected. No one calls anyone “pardner”, for example, and there’s no gunfights (well, not at first). It would not surprise me to learn that Mr. Belcher did a lot of research to paint his world as clearly as he did as far as slang and clothing, either.
I’m looking forward to the sequel to this story which is called the The Shotgun Arcana; enough is left unexplained or unresolved in this one to leave us reassured that both the story goes on and that the people we’ve met will have to face a new menace tomorrow. I’d be happy to join them for the ride into the next sunset of Golgotha, when the horrors of the frontier come out to play. Any town where they’re performing The King In Yellow twice a week has to be a wild place to live, even if it’s only for a few hours.
As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.