Continuing with our library hauls, I’m reviewing Six Gun Tarot this week, our first introduction to R.S. Belcher’s fusion of steampunk, weird western, and Lovecraftian horror. This novel follows the denizens of a town on the edge of the 40-mile desert where the promise of a new life sits shoulder to shoulder with the risk of a cruel and unnatural death. Golgotha is filled with Mormons, Chinese, outlaws, ninja women, and creeping terrors at every turn. It’s fun, that’s for sure, and well written, but despite glowing admiration by the likes of geek royalty Felicia Day, I have a few problems with it I need to unearth. It’s dangerous to go alone, so here’s a revolver filled with silver bullets. Let’s take a long ride into the abyss, partner.
The Six-Gun Tarot takes its name from the chapter headings, which reflect the events of the plot. It does take a little tarot knowledge to know how sometimes, but it more or less tracks with the way we follow multiple protagonists and plot lines: we meet Jim Negrey, the Page of Wands who delivers an instrument of change, the Hanged Man Jon Highfather who was both literally hanged and metaphorically put his life on pause as Sheriff, and Malachi Bick who embodies the Fool as the beginning of the story and the one who sets things in motion by taking those first ruinous steps. Each character has their own side story that weaves together with the main plot of the book, beginning with Jim’s arrival in Golgotha after braving the 40-mile desert that separates Golgotha from the East. We follow these characters as they come face to face with the gibbering chaos and ancient cosmic evil that lies at the heart of Golgotha.
What Belcher has made reminded me of the scifi show Eureka: we have a small town, populated by extraordinary people, who naturally cause some crazy shit to go down at the most inconvenient times. Eureka set extraordinary people against an everyday backdrop: the characters visited the coffee shop, they had relationships, and kept it up often during crises, providing a feeling of normalcy that made the characters feel capable and intelligent. That was the disappointment with Tarot for me. It’s only halfway through the book that Jon Highfather starts to mention all the crazy toad people, the werewolves, and the ghostly maulings that have been going on in this town, and he does it Indiana Jones style referencing stories we don’t get to read, while the townsfolk seem totally ignorant of the things that are happening. It’s like Highfather has decided eking a new life for themselves in the Wild West was enough to be getting along with, and let them keep dying without some salt shotguns or stakes to hand whenever something new showed up.
I almost feel like there should be a totally separate short story collection to go with it, but there wouldn’t be any point. Most of the townsfolk are talking about standard paranormal tropes that everybody has read a million times. And after reading Tarot, I’m not sure why its celebrated as a steampunk book. There are elements of gothic fantasy in the Clay Turlough side story, sure, but there isn’t much in the way of anachronism, and it’s almost a direct rip from Mary Shelley’s work. The wild west element is done very well with the Highfather arc, initially a deus ex machina but developing into a solid moral man in an immoral world backstory. But the Lovecraftian part is the big problem for me. First of all the language is ripped right from Lovecraft. I’m not sure how high you can stand on the shoulders of giants before the giants get pissed off you’re using their made up language. Then there’s the symbolism, which is a total mess.
Now, before I mention this I should tell you I studied both philosophy and comparative religion, so this maybe will piss me off more than it does you. Mostly, it’s the fucked up amalgam of Native American pantheon, Lovecraftian mythos, and the god of Abraham and Moses crammed up into my craw. The Coyote doesn’t have an interest in human women! He’s a trickster, not Zeus. The Elder Gods of Lovecraft were always presented as an older entity that was worshipped by ancient races, entities of mind-rending power, wisdom, and ruin, whereas Tarot presents those gods as sort of a Titans to the Christian god’s Chronos. Then there’s the hackjob on the Chinese creation myth of Pangu. IF HIS BODY BECAME THE EARTH WHY IS HIS EYE A JADE MARBLE?! Jade is a deeply spiritual stone in my culture, but it has nothing to do with the dead. Jade is a stone of the living. It is protection from spirits and ill luck, not a handy summoning stone for the understudies of Aragorn’s ghost army. Also, unnecessary deus ex machina much?
You know what it feels like? Tarot’s spirituality feels every splinter faith that redacts their own scripture, where the old beliefs get ripped apart so they’ll play nice with each other and make sense in the same universe. And while I see the hippie pacifism that’s well and good about it, it’s built on the corpses of the traditions its destroyed; exactly what the God of Biqua and Lucifer did in Tarot, ironically enough. AND THEN the book specifically mentions Mormon artifacts as being particularly of use, whereas everybody else is just groping around with their particular artifacts, unguided by anything, yet relying on them being empowered by “belief” when most of them are plain indifferent about what they believe. Props to you bro for sticking a homosexual Mormon in there. Wait… nothing actually happened to him and he never confronted his elders about it… NO PROPS FOR YOU. And the “Chinese” artifact isn’t even wielded by a Chinese character! Come on, Belcher. You’re already appropriating my culture, now you’re butchering it and sticking it in a white kid’s pocket. I think the ninja lady feminist is the greatest tragedy of all. Belcher spends whole flashbacks on how she’s independent and learned to be a badass from an immortal Anne FREAKING Bonnie, and when it comes down to the crunch she’s just another scared momma bear chained to her family. It’s all so disappointing.
I was excited about Six Gun Tarot, I really was. And the book starts off well, really classic western stuff. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of epic language and a town that really gets you to care. The Auggie and Widow Proctor arc is sweet like sugar, and there’s great chemistry between Mrs. Stapleton and Mutt the Deputy. But then the book takes a horrible turn, and not even the tentacle porn saves it. If I was writing this thing [Spoiler] would have been hentai’d WAY earlier, sneaking around and causing a lot of the freaky deek that should have been messing up everyone all along. As it is, she doesn’t get nearly enough pages to flesh out her character, and she isn’t motivated by it in her turn against the protagonists. She just becomes a puppet, which is sort of how every woman in this book is portrayed, if I’m being honest.
Lack of payoff used to be the realm of television. Now I guess they make it in dead tree format too.