Magic and Mayhem in the Old West

This past week, I had the pleasure of reading Incident at Whisper Falls by J. Stephen Thompson. It’s a short weird western novel that opens when an outlaw gang rides into the titular town and unleashes mayhem. Meanwhile a mysterious cardinal appears to a reverend and offers to answer the town’s prayers of getting rid of the outlaws. From there, we jump ahead a few years and meet McCray, a bounty hunter trailing a conman named Spenser Townshend, a so-called Mystik who uses magic to disguise himself and cheat at cards. McCray handily captures Townshend and the two ride off together like Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in 3:10 to Yuma. In this case, McCray hopes to hand Townshend to the marshal at Whisper Falls.

Instead of Whisper Falls, they find a town called Dignity about 20 miles to the east of where Whisper Falls is marked on McCray’s map. What’s more, anyone who seems to know anything about Whisper Falls seems disinclined to talk about it to the bounty hunter. McCray and Townshend continue to where Whisper Falls should be and find that magical forces have removed the town from our plane of existence entirely. What follows is a battle between the forces of good and evil that has elements of both classic westerns and dark fantasy.

We’re accustomed to classic high fantasy being set against a medieval backdrop, but this is really something borne of fantasy’s roots in fairy tales. In fact, when many familiar fairy tales were first told, the people telling them were just telling stories about the people and places around them, or things that might have happened in their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Another strong inspiration for modern fantasy tales are the heroic quests written by Renaissance writers who, in turn, had created idealized, romanticized versions of medieval knights and clerics to tell their moral tales.

Of course Renaissance writers weren’t the only ones to romanticize and idealize previous generations. The Japanese of the Meiji era created stories about idealized samurai. Here in America, we’ve created an idealized, mythic version of the Wild West. Add a little magic and a few monsters and these times and places become ideal settings for epic fantasy stories. Other great writers who’ve used a Wild West backdrop for their tales of epic fantasy include Stephen King in The Gunslinger and Jim Butcher in his story “A Fistful of Warlocks” from the anthology Straight Outta Tombstone.

Incident at Whisper Falls tells a satisfying, complete tale, but J. Stephen Thompson left several hooks for sequels to this first book of his Mystic America series. I look forward to seeing the further adventures of the bounty hunter McCray and his allies.

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