Editors’ Note: Matt Spencer is the author of numerous novellas and short-stories, as well as the novels The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast, and Summer Reaping on the Fields of Nowhere. His latest book is Changing of the Guards. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. As of this writing, he lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Spinning an effective Wild West tale is harder than it looks, for the same reasons as any form of historically-inspired adventure fiction, though in some ways even more so. On the one hand, there’s a consciously mythologized landscape that the audience knows well, at the very least by pop cultural osmosis, and from which they expect certain things. On the other hand, modern readers tend to view such stories through a far savvier lens than in the genre’s formative days, even when enthusiastically suspending disbelief for a wild, larger-than-life tale. Which brings me to Hayley Stone’s Weird Western novel Make Me No Grave, where the author wrangles all these working parts masterfully, spinning one hell of a ripping, supernaturally laced historically inspired caper.
US Marshal Apostle Richardson has been on the trail of ruthless lady outlaw Almena Guillary, more popularly known as the Grizzly Queen of the West. Through a series of mishaps and near-death experiences, the two adversaries find
themselves forced to work together in an uneasy partnership, which grows into an unlikely friendship laced with tantalizing slow-burn sexual tension. The frequent shootouts, fistfights, chases and robberies are described with a fast-paced, visceral sense of detail, against a richly realized backdrop of rural 19th century rural Kansas, peopled with a colorful variety of supporting characters, good, bad, and in between, on both sides of the law. While our protagonists’ spicy good-boy-meets-bad-girl chemistry feels somewhat familiar, Stone fleshes them both out with enough depth and complexity that they never fall into cliched stereotypes. The heart of the emotional conflict lies in Apostle’s increasingly strained idealism versus Almena’s hard-bitten outlaw cynicism. While they both grow and discover unexpected sides of themselves, Stone never settles for simple, clear-cut answers to the questions she raises through her characters. Apostle comes to realize that there’s as much evil and corruption on his side of the law as Almena’s, some of it institutionalized, much of it just coming down to plain ol’ human nature. On the other hand, Almena, while capable of unexpected altruism and kindness, isn’t painted as some misunderstood Robin Hood figure, nor is she merely a damaged woman who can be “fixed/saved” as Apostle initially perceives her.
Almena also turns out to have a few supernatural tricks up her sleeve, as do a few supporting characters we and Apostle meet through her. While this aspect of the story isn’t explored in as much detail as I would have liked, I appreciated the way Stone clues us in on a hidden paranormal community beneath the surface of “normal” frontier society, much like something out of a contemporary Urban Fantasy novel, in a way that feels fresh when presented against a historical backdrop. If there’s one thing that doesn’t work about this aspect of the novel, it’s how after we’ve seen Almena’s special abilities save the day a few times, it robs some of the later moments of danger of any real sense of jeopardy.
When spinning escapist fiction out of real history, authors unavoidably face certain choices in how they present the more unpleasant realities, such as social norms that can be hard for modern audiences to look in the face. It’s especially impossible to ignore for modern Americans looking to stories of our own nation’s violent past, where specific forms of cruelty and injustice were not only horrifically normalized but remain all too relevant today. There’s a broad range of ways to address and explore this, from the raw, unflinching “fly-on-the-wall” straightforwardness of HBO’s TV series Deadwood, to more idealistic fables of victims of oppression fighting back/initially unenlightened white people learning better and helping out (the latter type usually winds up feeling too syrupy and disingenuously sentimental for my taste, with most recent notable exception being Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained). When addressing themes of racial and gender inequality, Make Me No Grave falls somewhat closer to the latter, and for the most part, works. While not the primary focus, former slaves, Mexicans, Osage Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants are depicted as real, rounded people, not stereotypes, and both Apostle and Almena’s sympathetic relationships with them are handled in ways that feel credible. The struggle Almena faces as a strong woman in a male-dominated profession is obviously relevant, and even leads to some of the book’s more interesting later twists. How she fell into that lifestyle is in some ways explored, while in other ways left mysterious.
While, as I said, these aspects are mostly handled well, there were a few sore-thumb moments where Stone committed one of my biggest pet peeves, namely 19th century characters talking about social issues in conspicuously 21st-century-sounding terms/thought-patterns, sounding more like mouthpieces than the organic, living, breathing people that they otherwise feel like. It’s to the rest of the book’s credit that these moments only briefly pulled me out of the narrative and broke my suspension of disbelief. To be fair, considering the stuffy 1950s values imposed on Western films, this is relatively preferable, and can hardly be considered a deal-breaker.
The climax of the story involves a train heist that leads to some truly unusual, memorable set-pieces, as well as a conclusion that’s at once satisfying while hinting at a sequel. If Stone writes one, I’ll gladly read it.
Make Me No Grave is available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and Audible.
Hayley Stone has lived her entire life in sunny California, where the weather is usually perfect and nothing as exciting as a robot apocalypse ever happens. When not reading or writing, she freelances as a graphic designer, falls in love with videogame characters, and analyzes buildings for velociraptor entry points. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in German from California State University, Sacramento.
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