The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins
The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins (pseudonym of Peter Friedrichsen) (Angry Robot, 2012) is following in the footsteps of some fairly powerful writers like Joe Lansdale (Dead in the West, etc.) and Norman Partridge (“Vampire Lake”, “Durston”, “The Bars on Satan’s Jailhouse”, etc.) in creating a weird west series (as an example in short story form, see the anthology Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes. We’re in Jonah Hex territory as a couple from the south survive the Civil War and join the ranks of the bounty hunters. But as there are rather too many ex-soldiers trying to hunt down the human escapees, our happy couple specialise in supernatural threats, working for priests and protecting the people from harm.
The lead character is Cora Oglesby who with Ben, her husband, as her constant companion, moves from town to town, rooting out evil and collecting the bounty which is usually paid through the church. In this instance, they are passing through Leadville in Colorado when they get wind of an unusual killing. Hiring themselves out on a freelance basis, they work for Marshal Mart Duggan to confront the supernatural beastie. When the usual silver bullets fail to do the trick, the couple travel to Denver to consult Father Baez, their local expert on all things supernatural. In this instance, he’s baffled but an exchange of information over the telegraph wires bring a diagnosis of a wendigo. The despatch of this poor creature marks the end of the first part of the book.
The second begins with an approach from a British Lord who’s visiting Colorado to protect his silver mines. It seems the tunnels have been overrun with vampires (many of whom are recent converts from the ranks of his miners). Having nowhere better to go, the couple decide to stay in Leadville to help the Lord and his “expert” deal with this infestation. Needless to say, this proves more challenging than they are expecting.
This novel represents an interesting challenge to conventional marketing wisdom. As I was growing up as a reader in the 1950s, novels dealing with the Wild West were fairly thick on the ground. This was reinforced by television shows like the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. As we came into the 1960s, cinema was into spaghetti and television continued to boom, but this represents the last hurrah for the genre. Thereafter it slipped into the background and book sales plummeted. This novel is therefore carefully retreading the old conventions of the brave marshal, the pusillanimous deputy, the saloon with its nonstop supply of rotgut whisky and 24/7 poker school, the inevitable whore houses, the miners who drink too much, gamble and whore, etc. It also has to confront the problem of language. Does it attempt to recapture the way folk in the late nineteenth century actually spoke, or does it update the vocabulary and syntax to match modern sensibilities? And then there’s the gender issue.
In the conventional western, the woman is either the domesticating influence who tempts the man from his world of action to set up a home, or she’s the sex object who’s used and then discarded as the man wanders off to punch some cattle or sling his six-shooter. As a generalisation, women could not be true to their sex and good with a gun (or in fighting using other weapons) although those we might call pioneer women would certainly have had basic survival skills and could probably shoot. Apart from Annie Oakley who was a sharp-shooting superstar, few women are shown with heroic qualities (despite Hollywood’s best efforts with Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead). Yet here we have a woman as the heroine. In all ways, she conforms to the archetype of a hero. In classical terms, she’s on a quest across the Plains to restore order. On the way, she encounters and overcomes evil. With her husband as her constant companion, she demonstrates all the usual traits of individualism although, this time, it’s in service to the community. She wins because she has a strong mind and no hesitation when it comes to pulling the trigger.
This is playing the same game as Xena, the Warrior Princess in having her demonstrate traditionally male characteristics. Indeed, from the way she dresses and her general manner, you could mistake her for a man the first time she walks into a saloon. From all this, you will gather the author makes little or no effort to replicate the language or the culture of the Old West. This is the Hollywood version of history, replacing the city in urban fantasies as a context for fighting supernatural beasties. In this case, we have a wendigo and a nest of vampires. Indeed, this might just as well be classified as a Western urban fantasy or paranormal romance tracing the nature of the relationship between this heroine and her man. Once you strip away all the paraphernalia of the Wild West, this is a slightly tame and, at times, a rather plodding series of fights, punctuated by the characters’ backstories and explanations of the supernatural beasties’ capacities and weaknesses. It’s very professional and highly competent but, for me, it lacks a spark of creativity or originality.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.