Remember how I said that Westerns needed to reveal new details about American history and the West if they were to succeed? To offer modern perspectives on an era that John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have already thoroughly explored? Well, I finished reading a book that does just that. S. Craig Zahler’s excellent Wraiths of the Broken Land follows Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in a new school of Western thought that I think we can all get behind. What’s this school of thought? It’s the idea that the West (and maybe, by extension, America) is an awful, hellish place of brutal violence, exploitation and death.
But what about wholesome cowboys and dignified boom town prostitutes who make ribald jokes while pleasing the ranch hands? You won’t find them in Wraiths of the Broken Land — no, sir. Strangely, I think that’s a good thing. I, of course, don’t know what the past was like. Nobody does. But you can’t look at the genocide of Native Americans, the callous way that outlaws would kill, the miserable way that women and minorities were treated and imagine the West was a nice place. There was no honor in the West and that’s what Wraiths of the Broken Land is really about.
Zahler’s story is set in 1906, near the tail end of the Classic Western Era– and right before all of Mexico is about to go up in a cataclysmic Civil War. It’s about the Plugford family and their allies — including the brutal outlaw Long Clay — as they try to track down two of their sisters who were kidnapped and sold into a horrific South of the Border brothel. I think it’s important that Zahler chose to set the story during Porfiro Diaz’s reign. Diaz is a product of American capitalist interests, who worked with him to modernize Mexico at the expense of the poor. The owner of the brothel, the sadistic Gris, is a Spaniard who feels upset about his country’s own colonial empire falling apart due to the Spanish American War. These are the kinds of influences that stir the characters (along with their own rage, greed or self-preservation) and the results are pure suffering.
I don’t want to spoil too much of what happens, but Zahler does a great job at showing the effects of violence. His story is very pulpy (unlike Blood Meridian) and there are moments of levity and ‘fun’ action. However, the violence always has consequences. I don’t want to spoil the story, but death and injury is only one of these consequences. Violence takes a mental toll. It changes people and Zahler shows that with the novel’s chilling conclusion.
The prose is also very good. It’s similar to McCarthy, using antiquated words (‘proffered’ comes up a lot) but not quite so ornate and long-winded. It’s a good style and gets across the idea of nefarious frontier doings. The characters, at least the point of view characters, are very sympathetic — ordinary people caught up in an awful situation — and you end up hoping for them to survive, even when you know that might not end up happening.
According to an internet search, Zahler is set to direct a movie called Bone Tomahawk (good title), staring Kurt Russel and Timothy Oliphant (awesome cast for a Western) about a bunch of outlaws that accidentally lead cavemen to attack a Western village. Supernatural elements? In a Modern Western Movie? I might think it spells disaster, but Wraiths of the Broken Land has taught me that Zahler is smart enough to avoid the common mistake of throwing troglodytes into a Western to appease nerd interest. He’s going to do something unique with the monsters to shed some truth about the American experience — and that’s something all Weird Westerns need.