“Cases from the stagecoach were busted open and sprayed with blood—and that thick black fluid with the sickly bright spots. More torn and broken limbs, innards, and organs had been strewn about, some half sucked into the muddy road. Shiv said, “Burn everything black you see.”
—Patrick Loveland, “Ekwiiyemak”
“[Robert E. Howard] has seen a good deal of the rough life of oil boom towns, & hotly resents the way large eastern corporations exploit Texas. When he says his life is ‘tame & uneventful,’ he is thinking only of Western standards.”
—H.P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, February 16, 1935
The “Weird Western” is a sub-genre that holds so much promise and is ripe for harvesting by skilled authors. Foreboding, almost foreign, landscapes. Gold rush towns run by lawless men that all too quickly transform into ghost towns as the money dries up. The cries of the dispossessed become the wails of forlorn spirits. In ride duster-clad anti-heroes, six shooters at their hip and occult symbols dangling from their necks. Tumbleweeds drift across the road; a moment of unnatural quiet before violence shatters the dawn. Armed with “Ekwiiyekamk,” the first story in his horror collection TOO MANY EYES, Patrick Loveland strolls onto this scene. But does he have what it takes to survive this unforgiving locale? We’ll find out, and in any event, I am grateful to Mr. Loveland for providing me with a free e-book copy in exchange for an honest review.
Released in 2019 by Stay Strange Publishing (oddly, a music publisher rather than a book publisher), TOO MANY EYES is Patrick Loveland’s first horror collection, though many of these stories are reprints. The first thing that I noticed was the very eye-catching cover (see what I did there?) that immediately put me in mind of the older Del Rey Lovecraft collections, with cover art by Michael Whelan. Mr. Loveland, when I asked, said he designed his cover for exactly that comparison and to pay homage to Whelan’s art. The stories in this collection move through time beginning with this first one that takes place in the 19th century American West and moving all the way into the far sci-fi-laden future. It’s a clever organization. Not every story in the collection is particularly Lovecraftian, but HPL’s influence is all over this first one for sure.
The year is 1889 and our story opens in a saloon. Classic. Our hero, Absalom Tate, steps out of the saloon into the dusty street (you can almost hear the creak of the swinging saloon doors behind him) where a strange wind has blown up, spooking his horse. At the same time, across the way, a woman descends a stairway with all the air of providence swirling round her.
This is Shiv O’Shea, our other main character, and one with whom Tate has had many previous encounters. She’s dressed as a gunslinger, and a heavily armed one at that. Upon closer inspection, she bears some unique gear as well, the purpose of which is shrouded in mystery but it portends battles against heretofore unknown foes. Not long after re-introductions are made a stagecoach rolls into town, drawn by a pair of seriously wounded horses. The coach has seen better days as well, and seems to be leaking a strange blackish-red fluid. Things really get weird when one horse suddenly begins to eat the other, “black boils with bubbles of bright green and purple form and multiply around the eviscerated horse’s mouth and eyes as it limped after its prey.” Overly described firearms are drawn and fired, and, when the chambers have been emptied, Shiv torches the whole mess with a homemade flamethrower.
When the smoke clears, it comes to light that Shiv is not just here by chance, but is on a secret government mission to combat the exact biological abnormality they’d just encountered. She doesn’t need any help, but Tate and the gang immediately sign up anyway. Their adventure takes them to the titular Ekwiiyemak, a lake south of town near an old, abandoned goldmine. It is in this mine where the main action of the story takes place. That little scene with the stagecoach turns out to have been only the appetizer, in more ways than one. In a quieter moment, the Sheriff asks O’Shea what’s going on and she cryptically replies, “There’s a debt being paid back, older than you can understand.” Loveland here taps into that same sense of deep, geologic time that Lovecraft was such a fan of. This all leads to a somewhat predictable, if fun conclusion that’s far bloodier than “The Dunwich Horror” but calls it to mind with the same type of “big boss” scene.
So, does “Ekwiiyemak” scratch that Lovecraftian/weird western itch? Well, sort-of. There’s two things that held it back for me. The first is that there was nothing particularly new about this story. I enjoyed it for the most part, but this is all ground that has been tread before and I found myself easily distracted from my reading. The second thing that really holds this story back is unfortunately the writing. In many places it clearly is in need of a stronger editorial hand. “Until the creature broke a hard appendage like a fleshy insect leg out through the gaps in the boards, sunk it into Esposi’s shoulder, and pulled his body down away from its grotesque tentacle stalk.” Is the appendage hard or fleshy? Did it pull the body down or away? You get so lost in the descriptors that you lose the sense of what is actually happening. In a lot of places this story suffers from lack of clarity—frankly, it’s too many to ignore. There is also a sort of obsessive focus on the guns, which eye-rollingly get described to the fullest extent every time one gets drawn. This intense focus on weaponry belies a deep interest of the author, which is why it’s so strange that he keeps referring to the ammunition proper to shotguns as “rounds” instead of “shells.” Towards the end of the story he gets it right, as if someone told him, but then he failed to go back to the beginning and correct previous instances. In other places, instead of being too much, descriptions are lazy: “The more intact horse…” Finally, the presence of tentacles for tentacles’ sake adds next to nothing except a flailing attempt to drive home the idea that this is a Lovecraftian story. It would be a Lovecraftian story even if the monsters didn’t feature tentacles, so their addition feels derivative. This story is set in the Western plains; tentacles don’t belong.
What did keep me interested, though, were the pacing and the character of Shiv O’Shea. Loveland’s got pacing figured out – this story moved and never looked back. Sometimes in weird fiction this isn’t the case as authors spill too much ink establishing set pieces or long winded expositions. Not here. This is an unapologetic action story and it moves. I also think he’s on to something with Shiv’s character. She was pretty awesome, a no-nonsense badass whose shooting baddies and chewing gum. And, you guessed it, she’s all out of gum. Her armaments are like something out of Q’s lab in a James Bond flick. I mean, a triple barrel shotgun – that rocks! The Absalom Tate narrator simply faded into the background, forgotten, when stood up against Shiv. Loveland might be one to watch, but he’s going to have to be more inventive with his stories, and he’s going to have to get some of these editorial miscues under control first.
That wraps this one up, friends. I hope everyone is doing as well as they can during this time of Coronavirus self-isolation/quarantine. Let’s all do our part to get through this as quickly and as safely as possible. This is the Bibliothecar telling you to STAY HOME and READ LOVECRAFTIAN STORIES!
Until next time, I remain yours in the Black Litany of Nub and Yeg,