Shadows West is proof positive that you in fact get too much of a good thing. A collection of three unproduced screenplays by Bubba Ho-Tep scribe Joe R. Lansdale and his brother, comics writer John L. Lansdale, the book is set firmly in the “Weird West” setting that is Lansdale’s wheelhouse. The problem is, it’s all very much set in there, and even the most dedicated fans may detect a certain thematic sameness between the three.
The first, and most original, is Hell’s Bounty, wherein a strangely sympathetic Devil sends a dead gunslinger named Smith back into the world to head off a catastrophe of Lovecraftian proportions in a small frontier town. With the aid of the locals (and a few other dead folks of the hero’s acquaintance) Smith is able to save the day and take out the demon who’s possessed a local saloon keeper, though not before he and his allies are besieged by zombies with a taste for both human flesh and slapstick comedy. The kicker is in the ending, where Smith and the barmaid whose mutilation he failed to avert before he died get their just desserts for their efforts on the Devil’s behalf. Of the three screenplays, this one is the one that has the most kick to it. It’s funny, it’s fast, and it sets up nicely for a sequel.
Deadman’s Road, on the other hand, feels a bit more rote. This time, a pair of critter hunters, the mismatched Jubil and Terry, wander into a tale of supernatural vengeance. The opening sequence, wherein they dispatch a werewolf (and then find out their client can’t exactly pay them) is great fun, but things slow down once they get into the next town. There, they agree to take out a beast that’s been haunting a particular stretch of road, the resurrected corpse of a local honey maker who’d been cursed after killing a small boy. Along with a band of misfits — a lawman, the criminal he’s taking in, and so on — they brave Deadman’s Road, with predictable (read: zombie attack) consequences. Jubil and Terry are a winning pair, but the script doesn’t take advantage of a few of the possibilities it sets up, and the endless wave of zombies just seem like a way to whittle down the side characters to get to the big finale.
And then there’s Dead in the West, based on the novel of the same name. In this one, an itinerant gunman-slash-preacher who’s had his disagreements with God rides into a town that’s about to have a serious supernatural problem. This time, the town’s brought it on itself, having done unspeakable things to a couple of traveling healers who are wrongly suspected of murder. Now the ghost of one of the travelers is back and out for blood, not to mention brains, guts, eyeballs and whatever else. It’s up to the preacher, again with the help of a few plucky locals, to avert disaster and save the day while fighting off endless hordes of zombies. Once again, the zombies are innumerable and ravenous when they’re not being slapsticky, and once again it comes down to a final showdown in a church. It’s fun, and the preacher is a memorable character, but after the other two, it suffers a bit from wacky zombie overload.
Completists and stone Lansdale fans won’t care — this is straight out of the playbook that stretches back to Jonah Hex. And taken alone, each of the screenplays is a fun read. You can easily see any of them getting made, albeit perhaps with a few changes, and there’s certainly plenty that’s cinematic spread out among the three. But three in a row is too many. In his fiction, Joe Lansdale is a writer of remarkable versatility. Shadows West focuses on a too-narrow piece of his talent, and that makes it a curiosity, not an essential.