Why is Golgotha the town where the owls speak and the stones moan? Why is this the town that attracts monsters and saints, both mortal and preternatural? Why is our schoolhouse haunted? Why did Old Lady Bellamy wear the skins of corpses on the new moon? How did old Odd Tom’s dolls come to life and kill people? Why do you still pour a ring of salt around that unmarked grave and how did this little ditch of a town become the final resting place of some of Heaven’s treasures?
I picked up R.S. Belcher’s book from a list of recommended horror novels that I thought would work for a pre-Halloween review. I ended up putting it down for a while, since it seemed to be more Western than horror. It’s a Weird Western though, which was a nice surprise. There are shape-changing Indians, a rough-and-tumble frontier town (with a separate Chinese district, natch), a dandy of a Morman mayor with two wives and a dangerous secret, and a lot of other strangeness that made things interesting, but it didn’t really seem all that scary.
Of course that was before the appearance of a cult which kidnaps people and feeds them to an ancient darkness from before the beginning of time, creating an army of human-shaped drones who drip black-ink poison from every orifice and create more drones by forcing the slug-like creature that replaces their tongue down the throat of another hapless victim. And that was after the appearance of a decapitated and rotting head being kept alive in a jar, and the Devil himself hanging around the town trying to figure out how he can profit on all the things going on. This book got dark kinda fast.
There’s a lot going on here. Thirty-four chapters, all named after a card in the Tarot deck, and every one is from the point of view of one of at least eight different main characters, each of whom have their own separate storyline, with small sub-sections of each chapter focusing on a minor character right around when something horrible happens. You’d think in a book this short there wouldn’t be enough time to give much detail on that many stories, but Belcher manages to keep all the threads flowing smoothly, occasionally pausing to give some backstory. The Lovecraftian horror that makes up the over-arching plot is always lurking in the background, but it doesn’t really get going until almost halfway through the book.
I sometimes found the individual stories more interesting than the main one. A few of the side-characters could be cartoonishly evil (Charlie Upton, I’m looking at you), but for the most part the author manages to give everyone some depth. Fifteen-year-old Jim is a good son trying to protect the only thing he has left from his father, but he did something without thinking, and now he’s having to keep one step ahead of the Wanted posters (we don’t get to find out the exact nature of what went wrong for most of the book; Belcher likes to draw things out for a while). The mayor of Golgotha is trying to find his own happiness in spite of being chained to his place in the community by the expectations of his dead father; he also gets on everyone’s nerves and uses his unhappiness as an excuse to hurt someone close to him. Clay is a decent enough guy, although a little too obsessed with the dearly departed once they’ve actually departed, and Maude is full of regrets after throwing away a lifetime of power and adventure for marriage with a bad-tempered, gambling-addicted doofus. And Malachi…well, let’s not get into Malachi and all his behind-the-scenes meddling, it would probably give too much away.
They used to have a judge of their own here in town, but he went missing about a year or two ago. Only a few people knew what happened to him. Jon wished he wasn’t one of them.
The town of Golgotha itself is probably the most interesting character in the book. Right from the start the author throws in these tantalizing details about strange things that have happened: hauntings, murders, random monster attacks, and having to leave a salt ring around one particular grave, forever. We never do get an explanation for most of these – in cases like the above quote we don’t even have a clue what the story is in the first place – and the neatest touch is that everyone seems to have gotten used to something weird cropping up every once in a while. It’s a little like living in an area prone to wildfires or earthquakes. People reminisce about “that bat thing” that carried away some of the townspeople a year ago, and the only thing they really seem to harp on is the fact that they lost a damn good barber because of it.
There were a few times in the book were things would get a little…deep? Philosophical? Belcher seems to be reaching for something, and it occasionally felt like he was using the characters as a mouthpiece while he worked through some ideas about God and faith and the grieving process. It’s still an entertainingly strange book, especially for a debut novel. If you like Weird Westerns (with some Lovecraft and a hint of Steampunk thrown in), then you should definitely pick this one up, and maybe the sequel which just came out last month. It sounds like the second book will have all the strange things in Golgotha that we saw in the first. And also cannibals.
Neat cover art, isn’t it? That one’s by Raymond Swanland, who’s done work for the Oddworld video games, Magic the Gathering, and a little bit of everything else.