Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun: A Dime Novel of the Old Satanic West
[Please note that the publisher sent me a copy of this title in return for a fair and honest review]
The first thing that drew my attention to the latest publication from Muzzleland Press, author Mer Whinery’s Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun: A Dime Novel of the Old Satanic West was the fantastic cover art that had been commissioned by the publisher for the novel. By illustrator Mat Fitzsimmons, it continues the Muzzleland Press tradition of their titles having very good quality and highly evocative covers that really draw your attention as a potential reader (and review, in my case). In this case, we are presented with stylised depictions of three hands raised upwards and brandishing three objects – a sword, a revolver and, most curiously, an inverted cross. Blood is spattered behind each hand, and above and below them are set the novel’s title and the name of the author, in well-chosen text that evokes the slightly crooked and worn typeset of Wanted posters, of the sort that would stereotypically litter the noticeboards of a town in the American West of the 19th Century. The colouring is muted and very much reminiscent of certain stylised graphic novels, and everything comes together to create a very attractive and haunting piece that makes you want to read the novel itself.
It turns out that the three upward-thrusting arms each represent one member of the Haints family, a family of bounty hunters that roam the Post-Civil War South, hunting down supernatural creatures and killing them. Now to me that’s already a fascinating idea, because even as someone living in the UK who is only relatively familiar with the history of the United States in the 19th Century, I’m well aware that the Reconstruction era was incredibly chaotic, the population of the South struggling with the immense damage and destruction caused by the Civil War and its turbulent aftermath. So there’s a huge amount of potential there in terms of plot, characterisation and overarching atmosphere, and I was intrigued to see how the author would use ‘Little Dixie’ as a basis for the plot of Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun. I didn’t know what to expect going into the novel, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the time I’d finished. To begin with, Whinery has a sharp eye for atmosphere and world-building, and from the very beginning of the novel we are presented with a very real, believable and incredibly bleak world, one where all hope, light and even happiness have disappeared, replaced with bitterness, darkness and hatred. But that’s not just because of the supernatural elements that the author introduces to the South, such ghouls, ghosts and far more eldritch abominations and deities; in fact, Whinery is superb at evoking an entire region that feels like it has been abandoned in the aftermath of the Civil War, both by the United States government, and any notion of Godliness or even light. This is a near-lawless place, where communities are far and few between, and have become insular and deeply protective, their inhabitants striking out at anything that feels out of place.
Anything or anyone – such as the Haints, two brothers and a sister who have been exiled from their hometown of Coffin Mills, and instead live in the Badlands, subsisting on the money earnt from riding towns and outposts of the supernatural creatures that now infest Little Dixie. Those creatures, several flavours of which are introduced throughout the book, are superbly portrayed, with Whinery imbuing them with a gothic, almost earthy feel that makes them feel like they have emerged from the very earth of the region, cursed creatures that are a result of the Civil War and the aftermath. The action sequences, where Ghouls and other, even fouler things, are fought by the Haints are intense, brutal scenes that really demonstrate Whinery’s skill as a writer, and after one particular close encounter in the middle of the book between a Ghoul and one of the Haint brothers, I felt like I could also smell the decaying, grave-stink of the creature as it had been fought. Just as importantly, Whinery takes the time to highlight how the creatures actually function, the pack system that governs them, and their various different forms of behaviour; one of the biggest irritations I have in any occult title involving monsters is when they’re portrayed as mindless, or just as cardboard cut-outs, and it’s heartening to see an author who understands that even ‘basic’ monsters need to be fleshed out in order to make them sufficiently challenging, both to the characters of a title, and that title’s readers.
The monsters haunting Little Dixie are brilliantly portrayed, as is the haunting, hellish world that the Haints are forced to travel into to confront the source of the horrors plaguing both the town of Coffin Mills, and themselves; but it’s the Haints themselves that are the main focus of Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun, and one of the novels greatest strengths. Whinery takes their time in digging into the backgrounds of the three siblings, and the grim and melancholy reasons for their current existence, but from the very start of the novel the three are established as deeply interesting, and deeply flawed, characters. There’s a real sense of kinship between the three, of the remains of a family brought together and forced to stick together through the worst that humanity and eldritch horrors can inflict on them, and it only takes a few pages for the reader to engage with them and sympathise; little things, like the way that they bicker, or the differing relationships between the brothers and sister, are deftly used by Whinery to make them seem more real, and therefore more likable.
One of the cornerstones of the siblings, and simultaneously the source of their power as bounty hunters, and the cause of so much intra-family friction, is the nature of religion, and the supernatural powers that can be derived from it. For in this version of Little Dixie, deities are real – and not just the usual Judeo-Christian ones. Little sister Sugar was exposed to something dark and eldritch at a very young age by their mother, in a grim and immensely scarring ceremony that is only hinted at with harrowing, indirect allusions; Sugar worships that being (hence the inverted cross on the cover art) and can draw upon extraordinary powers as a result, but the costs for her are dire as a result, forcing her to hide a dark secret from her kin. As a result, there’s a great deal of subdued but ever-present conflict that Whinery subtly mines for material – older brother Micah and his faded but not entirely depleted belief in Christianity versus Sugar’s worship of unknown, ancient Elder God older than time, with younger brother Cutter awkwardly caught in the middle.
The plot of Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is richly detailed and well-paced, with Whinery having a good sense of when the pace needs to slow down for characterisation and plot revelations, and also when it needs to be put on the back-burner for some more excellent action sequences, and ruminations on the nature of faith and belief. The various protagonists of the novel are well-chosen and intensely portrayed, and there’s a real sense that these are villains that need to be put down – permanently and violently; but Whinery also highlights the ultimate cost of blindly chasing vengeance, and none of the characters in the novel come out the same as when they were first introduced – if they come out at the other end at all. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised at how brutal and final the author was with many of the primary cast, making an interesting change of pace from so many novels that set up characters for a seemingly fatal ending, only to swerve away so that they can appear in further sequels. When everything is considered together – the brilliant cover art, excellent copy-editing and internal layout, the fantastic writing, plotting and characterisation provided by Whinery – I have no hesitation in calling this one of the best ‘Weird West’ novels that I’ve ever read, near-rivalling Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter by Edward M. Erdelac in quality. Once again, Muzzleland Press have delivered a high-quality piece of horror fiction and proving why I consider them one of the rising stars in Horror publishing.