I have to confess something that most of my family and close friends already know – I love Westerns. A solid Western has great storytelling power and entrancing details, but there’s a lot of cheap, formulaic specimens roaming the wild. When reading Westerns, I’m not just saying you’re going to get burned, I’m saying you have to experience a few lousy books in the search for great yarns. Most Westerns take place firstly, in America, and secondly, between 1866-1900 and Americans have produced so many works of fiction fitting that description that one cannot consistently expect a decent story that remains culturally relevant and historically accurate. But, it’s 2018 and we have had options for some time. Any other Western fans like myself should check out Australia’s growing Western genre because they have mastered it just like they did red wine. Furthermore, we’ve mixed this genre with horror and fantasy and came up with the Weird Western, which brings me to Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol.
A Western – weird or not – revolves around stark characters and Unbury Carol comes strong on character. A woman who keeps a terrifying sort of narcolepsy that manifests itself in convincingly death-like comas private from everyone she knows except three people. Her outlaw ex who has a reputation for killing without ever firing his weapon. A paranoid, greedy husband. A hitman who only uses fire. The vibrant characters at the core of Unbury Carol chase one another down the Trail in a quest to free Carol from the machinations of her scheming husband.
Malerman has mastered the Weird West’s grasp of the fantastic. Unabashedly evil, main villain Smoke far outshines everyone else with his simple, yet brutal tendency toward arson. Smoke obscures all other characters, though closer examination of James Moxie reveals a compelling, but flawed trickster. The inevitable showdown between Moxie and Smoke drives the plot more than Carol’s impending funeral even though she isn’t dead. Carol herself provides a refreshing twist on dames in distress and Sleeping Beauty fairy tales, since she actually attempts to roust herself from the coma and overcome a mysterious force of evil known as Rot. An ensemble cast of grotesques rounds out the small town Carol inhabits, that does not know about her comas, and they all chatter in delightful Fauxld West banter.
However, some of the most important characters in the novel either appear only as ghosts or have died before the start of the book. Wise drunkard John Bowie occupies Carol’s thoughts more than Moxie or Dwight, her homme fatale husband, but John’s death incited the novel so we don’t get a clear picture of him. Carol’s mother flits in and out of flashback sequences, dies offstage, and then (spoiler alert) leaves a spring loaded coffin with her lawyer in which to bury Carol in the event of Carol’s death, which saves the day when Moxie doesn’t make it in time. Her mother has been long dead before the events of this book. Someone we never really meet solves the entire plot from beyond the grave. Unbury Carol takes place in a well-established and beautifully creepy world, but unfortunately excludes two of its most important citizens from the highly ratched action.
The setting, undefined yet as sepia-toned as O Brother Where Art Thou?, rocks. Small details paint the landscape in this nameless country, and build an enveloping atmosphere. In the bleak territory of Unbury Carol, the laws of humans, physics, and magic all become blurry. I just wish I could have spent a little bit more time there.
Fans of Westerns, (especially those poking their nose into Weird Westerns) will love the Trail and the towns that inhabit it. Horror junkies will get a kick out of the freakshow and the suspense. Unbury Carol entertains and frightens right up until its climax.
Visit Josh Malerman at his website or at Penguin Random House Books for more about his creepy fiction!
Three stars out of five.
Page count: 362
Favorite Quote: “Then let’s be unusual. Let’s be downright weird.”