Salem Covington is a man with a Gun. Not just any firearm, as the capital should make clear, but a weapon with supernatural qualities: as long as Covington carries it, he can never be killed by any ordinary gun. He was once a Confederate guerrilla, but the Civil War is over. He became the pupil of a Native American priest named Dead Bear, but the Indian Wars are over – one of the casualties being Dead Bear.
His current mission is to track down and slay each and every member of the Bad Hand Outfit, the five men responsible for killing his teacher, and he is prepared to take many more lives along the way. He is not be alone on his quest. Chained to his stagecoach is a coffin containing the body of Dead Bear, his spirit on hand to offer guidance to Covington.
Throughout The Magpie Coffin, layer after layer of Covington’s tough exterior is peeled away – much as he peels away the scalps of his victims – and each new layer serves merely to reaffirm what we already know: that Salem Covington is a hardened mass of physical and psychological scar tissue, built up over years in an environment where only the toughest survive. It has to be said that the novel’s protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to the DC Comics character Jonah Hex: similar Confederate history, similar nihilistic philosophy, and even a comparable facial disfigurement (in this case, a brand on one cheek). But while it may be familiar in places, The Magpie Coffin works because of its unflinching commitment to its central archetype.
As another contribution to the Death’s Head Press Splatter Western line (see also the novellas Red Station and The Night Silver River Run Red), The Magpie Coffin contains its fair share of gore. Author Wile E. Young does a deft job of varying his tone, describing some acts of bloodshed with delicate turns of phrase (“He screamed like a woman in birth. They don’t tell you how they scream, how it warms the soul”) and others with analytical detail:
Jake would tell me sometime later that he had heard a story of this; that folks in Littlecreek, Kansas had shut their windows and doors, put cotton in their ears, and even sang Grace at the top of their lungs, but it hadn’t been enough to shut out the Marshal’s wails. Jake told me that children still suffered nightmares as they imagined what was happening on the gallows outside of town.
I didn’t have to imagine at all. The skin peeled easily enough; it always did. The Marshal stamped his feet and screamed, tears running down his face. It was bright red and flowed thick. I saw the yellow bit of his skull and reached with my hand to feel the rubbery texture of his flesh, getting my hands around it in a firm grip and pulling… The Marshal was a tough man, he never passed out as I tugged, each bit of skin ripping off slowly, bloody strings of sinew and hair desperately attempting to keep this man’s scalp from being separated.
The novel’s structure is straightforward, following Covington as he picks off his enemies one by one, each new leg of his journey placing him into a situation that further defines his character. One memorable scene has Covington come across a hanging, the three victims-to-be having been sentenced to death for crimes of varying severity. A more clean-cut Western hero may well have rescued all three from the cruel Marshal who presides over the execution, but not Salem Covington. Having decided to kill both the Marshal (hence the above-quoted scalping) and a nearby cavalryman, Covington’s personal code allows only two of the convicts to be spared – two lives for two lives – and he allows his young partner Jake Howe to choose who lives and who remains in the noose.
Jake, incidentally, is one of two companions picked up by Covington on his journey, the other being prostitute-turned-outlaw Ruby Holloway. Neither character is exactly innocent to the harshness of frontier life, yet Covington always has something in store to his two cohorts on what is best described as a journey into hell. Having established its brutal anti-hero, the novel is duty-bound to provide villains even worse than Covington himself. The most colourful antagonist is Sergeant Craft, a character who owes more to backwoods horror than to Western convention: Craft presides over a Sawney Bean-esque clan of murderers – his mother, who wears a maggot-ridden pig’s head as a mask, being amongst them – as they scour the land to feed their appetites for sadism and necrophilia.
One evil analysed in particular detail by The Magpie Coffin is racism. Sergeant Craft is portrayed as a white supremacist, which merely adds to his laundry list of grotesque character traits; but in a more provocative touch the novel establishes that Covington’s young cohort Jake harbours a hatred of Native Americans: so much so that, during the scene at the gallows, he chooses to save a cowardly white deserter over a noble and dignified Native. It would have been far easier for the novel to take the obvious tack of casting Jake as a figure of rosy-cheeked wholesomeness to contrast with Covington, but to do so would have been to betray the novel’s nihilism. Crucially, Jake’s character flaw is not shared by the main character: whatever else might be said against him, Covington is at least an equal-opportunity killer with no grudge against any race.
The Magpie Coffin offers ample space for the reader to ponder such matters. While the splatter-laden action may be the selling point, the violent scenes are interspersed with quiet stretches where Salem Covington gets to take things slowly. These are the moments in which he expounds upon his philosophy, reminisces about his deceased brother Virgil, and communes with the spirit of Dead Bear. Of course, even the mellow sequences turn out to be rather grisly, as when Covington has to offer up a selection of recently-claimed scalps to a bear before he can speak with his ghostly mentor.
As the first of the self-contained books in the Splatter Western line, The Magpie Coffin makes a perfect starting point for the series. Although the plot and characterisation never stray far from the bounds of Western convention, the darkest aspects of the genre – from brutality and bloodshed to frontier ghost stories – are built into a nightmare landscape worthy of Salem Covington.