The Death’s Head Press Splatter Western series is something that will be turning up rather a lot in this review series. Many of the books deal with grim-faced gunslingers, as would be expected from horror-western hybrids, but with The Night Silver River Run Red Christine Morgan bucks the general trend: the story is less Clint Eastwood and more Tom Sawyer, albeit with a greater degree of disembowelment than Mark Twain included in his novel.
The story begins with four children – Emmett, Cody, Albert and Mina – sneaking out of their beds at night to visit a freak show. Along the way, they encounter two boys and a girl who belong to the Truthers. This community, presumably a religious sect, generally remain silent around outsiders, although the girl breaks this tradition by giving her name as Saleel. Not all the people the roving children meet on their nocturnal jaunt are as benevolent, however, as becomes clear when they un into what appears to be a pack of human-animal hybrids:
Emmett had the briefest impression of a looming, lunging, shaggy-hair mass, some nightmare bear-buffalo thing coming at them, not slowing even as Cody let fly another pebble with Deadeye, and he lobbed the lantern at it with every bit of his strength […] the fiery missile struck dead-center, splashing burning kerosene, igniting that hairy-woolly-shaggy hide in a genuine conflagration. Oh, and the shrieks the thing made were unlike any Emmett had ever heard in his life, awful rising catamount cries mixed with the metallic screech of train-wheels when the engineer laid in hard on the brakes, while somehow terribly human too.
It turns out that these figures are a band of Sawney Bean-esque cannibals: that beloved splatterpunk standby, and here substituting for the savage Indians of Westerns from earlier, less culturally sensitive times. Calling themselves the Redwolves, the men are clad in the furs of various animals, their exposed skin “streaked with blood, less in the manner of warpaint than simply from their gory business.” Their reign of terror in Silver City has already begun, as the children realise when they find the gutted body of Old Man Starkey, “a great gory hollow dug in his midsection … his innards become outtards”.
The novella then switches to events occurring elsewhere in Silver River at around the same time as the saga of the sneaky children. The next set of characters we meet turns out to be another gang of killers; but unlike the Redwolves they do not practice cannibalism. Instead, they prefer drowning babies and raping women. We are introduced to them through the eyes of Horsecock (a childhood nickname granted to him by his stepmother) who considers himself one of the less objectionable members of the community: after all, he has never eaten human flesh nor drowned a baby. Various members of this band go door to door, murdering the families inside:
Her bulging, pleading eyes met Travis’. Gus spat in his palms, rubbed them, and hoisted the largest cleaver from the Cookpot’s kitchen. Its honed edge shone bright. So very, very bright. Vivid. Too vivid for dream-detail.
“One clean chop—” began Bertrand.
“I know, I fuckin’ know, used to do this on chickens all the damn time.”
“Nan!” Travis wheezed
Whoosh and chunk-thunk, down the blade came. Crunching through neck-bone, shearing through flesh, burying itself in the table-top with a decisive wood-splitting whack. Nan’s head, hair pinned up in coiled bedtime-braids, fell right off the suddenly-red-and-gouting stump of her neck. He body bucked once, a mighty heave so as to jolt the table. Her head dropped neat-as-you-please into the dish basin placed below. Gus bent and sank his fingers into the mass of braids and coils, lifting her head like some fella from one of those crazy old Greek-style stories.
As this home invasion narrative plays out, homestead after homestead is attacked by the roving murderers, the child protagonists only surviving because they had decided to sneak out to see the carnival. The final characters to take centre stage are the sideshow performers, whose intervention brings a new layer of weirdness to the chaos immersing Silver River: the freaks and conjurers become almost superheroic figures, an essential counterbalance to the various irredeemable villains.
While The Night Silver River Run Red is crammed with incident, it is able to slow its pace considerably and take in the details. Often this will be simply to draw out the scenes of gore and brutality, but just as often the story will zoom in on the wrinkles and fissures across its Old West community. It touches upon attitudes towards race and gender of the time – the band of children include a girl and a black boy, but remain egalitarian, unlike the adults – and also sketches in a spectrum of subcultures. Between the Truthers (who are presented as gender-swapped Mormons, female members reportedly allowed multiple male partners: “Not like those folk up Utah way, where one man might hoard himself a whole bevy of wives”), the freaks and carnies, and the multiple roving gangs of killers (individual members of which have their own moral codes that allow them to feel superior to their fellow murderers), Silver River is one volatile place. All that is needed is a single spark to ignite it.