It was inevitable that the wendigo theme would turn up in the Death’s Head Press Splatter Western series: when an entire line of books is based on gross-out horror in the old West, what could be a more natural fit than a Native American legend of cannibalism? Kristopher Rufty rises to the task with The Devoured and the Dead, the twelfth Splatter Western, which serves its readers a wendigo-sized banquet of human flesh.
Protagonist Billy Coburn narrates a story of winter 1884, a time from his childhood childhood as seen from a weary adult perspective. The narrative opens with eleven-year-old Billy and his family – parents Claire and Abe, and sixteen-year-old sister Lenora – traipsing through North Carolina. Accompanying them are three other clans: the Shumakers, the mistrusted McCrays, and a Native American family comprising tracker Ahote, his wife Chenona and their baby.
The party sets up camp in a stretch of forbidding wilderness that, according to Chenona, is haunted by evil spirits. Here, their horses start to die or disappear; Billy’s father sets off with Ahote in search of the missing animals, only for both men to vanish themselves, having presumably met their deaths. A blizzard breaks out, and the travellers are stranded with little in the way of food.
Tragedy then strikes when Chenona’s baby dies. Shortly afterwards, Billy catches sight of his mother sharing food with the McCrays and Shumakers – and judging by their guilt-laden conversation, food of a forbidden sort. The McCrays’ daughter, Ellie, also spies on the scene, but it is Billy who notices the recently-used shovel and deduces exactly what the grown-ups have been feasting on:
Then I noticed that aroma again. It did smell kind of scrumptious, as if it might taste like deer meat.
My stomach grumbled, then it turned nauseous.
“What?” asked Ellie, desperation and volume coming to her voice.
“It’s… the baby.”
Even in the heavy shadows it was easy to recognize the confusion twisting Ellie’s face. I remember that she didn’t know about what James and I saw that morning. Ellie, like most the others, had no clue that Chenona’s baby was dead, She’d buried the poor thing with her bare hands.
And they’d dug it back up sometime after.
The cannibals subsequently progress to murder, first to cover up their atrocity and then to procure more meat. What started as an act of grim desperation in the face of starvation becomes a gleeful banquet as the taste for human flesh catches on. Parents begin tucking into their own offspring with relish, and Billy – a boy reluctant to kill even a rabbit for food, let alone resort to cannibalism – finds himself outnumbered in a kill-or-be-killed situation.
While The Devoured and the Dead is not afraid to plunge into outright supernatural subject matter – it does, after all, have a scene in which a Native American ghost appears and explains the mechanics of a curse – its treatment of wendigos is comparatively grounded, the condition being portrayed as something akin to psychological lycanthropy. While some wendigo stories depict those afflicted physically transforming into monsters, Rufty downplays this and instead portrays the wendigo state as a burning appetite. Not that this makes much difference to the victims:
I lifted my gaze higher and saw why he had been screaming. Patty and Floyd Shumaker were kneeling on either side of him, hands wrist-deep in his mangled gut. I could see patches of his ribcage showing through the tears in his shirt, coated in tacky pulp. When they pulled out their hands, they were clutching entrails and chunks of bloody meat. They raised their gooey treasures to their mouths and bit down. Blood squirted against their faces, adding to the red smears that were already there. Chewing, their eyes rolled and flickered in their heads.
I opened my mouth to scream but all that came out were whispery cries.
Lurking beneath The Devoured and the Dead’s body-count narrative is an aching sense of guilt and shame. Taboo is central to the story, and comes in three forms. One is the obvious taboo of cannibalism: the novel plays up the initial ambivalence that the cannibals feel about eating the dead baby (“I mean… isn’t this… ungodly?”) and even once the wendigo contagion sets in, some of the characters retain enough humanity to ask to be killed before they can succumb, in the manner of many a zombie film.
Another taboo is sexual. Billy, at eleven, is experiencing the first urges of adolescence, with Chenona being the object of his attraction (“The dark-skinned woman was shaking her large breast at the baby, making it jiggle. I glimpsed the dark coin of her nipple and felt a pull low in my abdomen. I looked back at the others”).
The third, and arguably the most significant, is cultural taboo. Horror stories of Native American curses walk upon sensitive ground, and what to some readers may be no more than a fetching toybox of skinwalker action figures will be, to others, a history of very real betrayal and bloodshed. The Devoured and the Dead exists right in the middle of this cultural tension, walking a fine line between oversensitivity (potentially lethal in a genre that thrives on shock) and outright exploitation. Whether or not it ever slips will be down to the reader’s interpretation, but the novel clearly recognises the delicate nature of the territory from which it pulls its subject matter.
In an inspired touch, The Devoured and the Dead connects the three taboos together, each one blurring in and out of the other in the mind of the child protagonist. A key scene overlaps sexual with cultural taboos by having Billy spy upon Chenona as she performs a rite naked; he feels a mixture of arousal and shame, feelings that segue into horror when he realises that she is mourning her dead child. This segues into the remaining taboo of cannibalism when Billy’s later act of voyeurism leads to his discovery that the other survivors have dug up and eaten the baby.
The Devoured and the Dead has all of the taut structure and graphic gore that extreme horror thrives on. But it also succeeds in taking every instance of uncertainty and trepidation arising from its usage of taboos, and converting them into pervasive nervous energy – all the better to fuel the narrative.