A few weeks ago, I posted about genre fiction and teen appeal. At that time I made a promise to myself that I would read more genre titles this year. So far so good because by reading The Six-Gun Tarot I covered three in one – fantasy, horror and western.
Teens are going to love this combination. First, because there are great characters to root for. Second, because the story brings together a unique combination of belief traditions, from Native American folklore to Mormonism to Chinese mythology to Gnosticism. This keeps anything from being predictable. Third, the action never slows. There are so many characters and storylines going on here, it never has a chance. Fourth, there are crazy things going on in Golgotha, and it’s just plain fun trying to figure it all out.
And teens are going to love the fact that it is all strung together thanks to Jim, a 15-year-old newcomer to the West. He leads the reader into Golgotha.
On top of the genre aspects, there are two great coming-of-age stories here. Jim’s is the first. As he walks through the desert, he thinks back on his past. Jim leads us to Mutt – the Native American deputy of Golgotha. Mutt rescues Jim from the desert, and he also tears down the Wanted posters featuring Jim’s face. They come to trust each other. Jim and Mutt are the characters whose stories pull the reader through the novel. The reader cares about them, and their lives hold enough mysteries to keep the reader wondering. Why is Jim a wanted man? How did his father die? Just what powers does his jade eye hold? And Mutt – what kind of creature is his father, the Coyote? Why is Mutt devoted to staying in Golgotha despite all the crazy things that happen there?
The other coming-of-age narrative is Maude Stapleton’s backstory. Mutt leads us to Maude. He is in love with her – from a distance. Maude, now an adult, lost her mother quite young. Her father traveled constantly, and before one of his lengthier trips he dropped her off at her Great Gran’s plantation. She proceeded to 1. Allow Maude to read any book she wished from her extensive library (yay, Gran!), 2. Train Maude in a myriad of mysterious skills, 3. Initiate Maude into the Daughters of Lilith, a group pledged to defend The Mother (Mother Earth) from men who have made a wreck of the world. We also like Maude because she returns Mutt’s interest – from a distance.
Let’s talk about horror, because I think teens either love it or avoid it. Here the horror somehow isn’t so terrifying. It’s creative, sometimes gross, but not terrifying. It makes you exclaim “Ewwww!” but not keep the lights on all night. The author keeps the reader distanced from the worst – I found myself, anyway, more interested in the mechanics of how everything fit together than terrified by Reverend Ambrose and his nasty followers, determined to destroy the world. I can imagine teen horror fans thinking, “Cool!” Although, some who really like to be scared might be disappointed. In any case, I doubt that teens into the fantasy elements will be turned off by the horror.
Then there’s the humor. Mostly it shows up in the dialogue between characters. Much of it concerns the history of weird happenings in Golgotha. Quite a place — I have a feeling there could be a sequel in the works.
Adult/High School–It’s Nevada, 1869, and 15-year-old Jim and his injured horse, Promise, are struggling to make it across the 40-Mile Desert. They are rescued by Mutt, Golgotha’s Native American deputy, who encourages Jim to settle in his town. Golgothais the kind of place where the sheriff keeps a variety of tools on hand, including “wooden stakes, silver bullets, various Indian and Chinese charms and amulets, a crucifix, and several vials of holy water.” Unusual people are attracted to Golgotha’s energy, an uneasy mixture of wealthy Mormons living well high on Rose Hill, mysterious Chinamen living down in Johnny Town, squatters and silver miners up on Argent mountain, and traditional business owners on the main street. Even the mayor is hiding something. It all works for Jim–he’s hiding a few things himself. Belcher blends horror, fantasy, western, and coming-of-age (even a good dose of humor) and successfully juggles a large ensemble cast. Augie Shultz, Austrian immigrant and General Store owner, keeps a strange memento of his late wife; recently widowed Maude Stapleton conceals her training as a Daughter of Lilith; and Reverend Ambrose and his deacon, Phillip, quietly build a group of zombie followers to help unleash a great evil from deep in the earth beneath Golgotha. A great battle to save the Earth, heaven and hell ensues–one whose seeds were planted with the creation of the world. Indeed, elements of Chinese, Native American, and biblical creation mythologies are woven throughout. The last quarter is solid action, during which teens will find themselves turning the pages faster and faster.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City