BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The gunfight at the OK Corral gets the weird western treatment as it’s mixed with alternate history and a dash of zombie.
PROS: Compelling, otherworldly flavor; Resnick’s clear and tight writing style; the weirdness; Doc Holliday’s relationship with the undead Johnny Ringo.
CONS: Doc Holliday is a bit too smug for his own good; Besides Kate Elder, other characters are serviceable, but somewhat cliché.
BOTTOM LINE: A cleanly-written, fun weird western with enough fantastical elements to raise it above standard fare.
Mike Resnick’s latest novel, The Buntline Special, is a foray into the world of the weird western. What’s a weird western? Well, if I’m categorizing this correctly, it’s pretty much what it advertises: a western tale that includes some fantastic elements that make it seem…weird.
The Buntline Special imagines a late-1800’s alternate history where America does not extend beyond the Mississippi river. That’s because the American Indians wield magic powers that have kept the states from advancing into their territory. This is not to say that there aren’t any Americans living west of the Mississippi; the Indians do allow folks to live on their land as long as they don’t threaten to take it away from them. For example, the famed western city of Tombstone, Arizona (home of the OK Corral) still exists and is, in fact, the location of this story.
Like our own history, Tombstone is home of some unfriendly folks like the Clanton gang and the McLaury brothers, and also to the people that try to keep them in line, like the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan). In this version of history, Tombstone is also where Thomas Edison calls home at the behest of the American government so that he might figure out how to counteract the Indian magic. When Edison’s life is threatened, Wyatt Earp sends for help, reaching out to expert marksmen Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson. Holliday and Masterson are meant to protect both Edison and Ned Buntline, the man who manufactures Edison’s inventions — which include things like electric carriages, prosthetic arms, electric force fields, and the uncommonly strong form of brass.
You can see some of the “weird” in this story, but there’s even odder elements woven in. For example: the cyborg prostitutes that populate the town brothel (which is managed by the Kate Elder, a wonderfully written tough female character); or that the American Indian Geronimo casts a spell on Masterson that transforms him into an actual bat creature at sunset; or that sharpshooter Johnny Ringo is raised from the dead to fight on the side of the Clanton gang. Perhaps weirdest of all is how these out-of-place elements are taken in stride by the characters. It’s odd for us, but not for them. This gives The Buntline Special a particularly otherworldly flavor that’s oddly compelling.
The character focus here is mainly on Doc Holliday, who is perhaps a bit too smug for his own good, keeping plans to himself when he was supposed to be part of a team. Holliday has an interesting relationship with the zombie Ringo: it’s a professional respect combined with a shared and uncommon love of literature. Ringo, meanwhile, is not any more dangerous than any other criminal cowboy in Tombstone, he’s just harder to kill. So leave your zombie preconceptions at the door; he’s not there to be scary, just to be weird. Other characters are serviceable, though it’s worth noting that Kate Elder, particularly when she stands up to the otherwise intimidating Doc Holliday, was a hoot. (As a side note, my internal speaking voices for both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were disturbingly like Sam Elliot. I think it was because of the moustaches.)
Like any other Resnick stories I’ve read, this one is easily digested and fairly straightforward. Although there are a few surprises along the way, you know where you’re going but you nevertheless feel like you’re in hands capable enough to allow you to enjoy the scenery.