Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.
Until recently, the name Nancy A. Collins didn’t register with me since the middle 1990’s. During that decade, her name crossed my path from two vectors. Being a lifelong reader of comic books, I was aware of her extensive tenure as writer on DC’s (then Vertigo’s) Swamp Thing title. The other avenue in which I recognized her was from the publishing house, White Wolf / Borealis. Being a fan of the works of Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, I was blowing a considerable amount of my then limited income on the three volume collection of the complete Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories (not the posthumous sequel), along with several of the fifteen volume omnibus editions of The Eternal Champion cycle. All of the Borealis titles sported a stylized compass logo on the spine, a pretty distinctive calling card on bookstore shelves. One of those books that I noticed several times, but was unable to pickup was Midnight Blue, a collected edition of Collins’ Sonja Blue stories. Blue has some serious street cred as a character; it has been argued that this punk rock, half vampire/ vampire killer was the template for many an urban fantasy heroine throughout the Aughts. Jump ahead to 2019, while searching the Kindle store for Weird Western titles, I encountered Nancy A. Collins name again after all those years. And boy, am I glad I did; the story I purchased was Hell Come Sundown. This tale is a straight up Weird Western crafted in the Joe R. Lansdale tradition. Sundown doesn’t contain any steam punk flourishes or shades of sci-fi; this is the stripped down, hardscrabble setting of 1869 Texas with elements of the supernatural being front and center.
The story starts off on the McKinney homestead at dusk, where young Jacob is sent off to sleep by his parents. Jacob has been plagued by an entity that creeps out from under his bed during the waning of the moon. Tonight though, unbeknownst to his parents, Jacob has taken matters into his own hands in solving his monster problem. As the creature slithers out from under hiding spot, out from the wardrobe steps Sam Hell, The Dark Ranger, who has been laying in wait for the creature. Hell is dressed from head to toe in black, the only dash of color being his bloodstone bolo tie. His skin is dead white with glowing red eyes. The Ranger shoots the frog like entity, slowing it down some, when his partner, the Comanche medicine woman known as Pretty Woman enters the room and binds the creature, a nature spirit that attached itself to the tree from which the wooden planks of the room were derived. Jacob, being a connoisseur of dime novels noticed the Rangers advertisement in an issue of Pickman’s Illustrated Serials and wrote for help; his professional motto is one wraith, one ranger. With the case solved and the threat neutralized, the ghost breakers depart.
In a flashback sequence, Collins relates the circumstances of how Texas Ranger Sam Yoakum, while making his territorial rounds in Golgotha discovered the town nearly abandoned. As he learns from the last surviving townsman, who has holed himself up in the church, that while digging a well, some men found a highly secured iron chest containing the mummified corpse of a conquistador. The men removed a bloodstone amulet from around the corpse’s neck only to be attacked and drained of blood. The vampire conquistador, aptly named Sangre, creates a new host of vampiric followers who rip through the citizens of Golgotha. That night, Yoakum learns that the townsfolk have not abandoned the town at all, but rather are awaiting nightfall so they can feed. Sangre turns Yoakum, but through the occult powers of the bloodstone, he is able to make his escape from Golgotha. Later that night, Pretty Woman finds Yoakum lost and wandering and comes to his aide as mandated by her vision quest. The story jumps back to the present where we learn that the pair of ghost breakers (Yoakum now goes by the name of Hell) has been systematically tracking down the infected residents of Golgotha and their lord Sangre for eight years across the state of Texas. The tale picks up steam when the duo follows the tracks of the monsters to a combination way station and trading post which has been abandoned but for one man. Here they learn from the old stable hand (named Cuss) that Sangre and his followers have taken the station proprietors, the Tuckers, along with the stage travelers to the ghost town of Diablo Wells, precipitating the final showdown between the vampire lord, his bloodthirsty followers and the ghost breakers. Sam Hell is a man who is trying to keep his monstrous side in check. Through the occult artifact of the bloodstone (crafted by an Aztec wizard),The Dark Ranger is able to curb his appetite for human blood, instead feeding on smaller game that Pretty Woman then fixes for her supper. This internal struggle acts as the testing ground for Sam’s moral compass. Whether alive or (un)dead, Sam is a Ranger first and foremost; his main priority is in keeping his fellow Texans safe. That is why destroying Sangre and his minions is so critical, both to Hell and Pretty Woman. The Comanche medicine woman’s vision quest revealed a potential future of a land overrun by vampires, with the human inhabitants used as livestock if Sangre’s depredations went unchallenged. Collins states in no uncertain terms that this pair is a co-equal partnership, with the slight advantage going to the Comanche; Sam relies on the medicine woman to safeguard him during the sun blasted daylight hours of Texas, while Pretty Woman’s extensive knowledge of arcane lore makes her a formidable specialist in dealing with the occult. As byproducts of his condition, Hell has the advantages of preternatural strength, general immunity to physical harm and the ability to sense (and track) the presence of the supernatural. He is also the ‘face’, the public relations component of the team, given the fact that frontier Texans of this era are distrustful of the Comanche. The Dark Ranger and Pretty Woman are written as a clear homage to Fran Striker’s creation of The Lone Ranger and Tonto; the author does a wonderful job of taking these pop culture inspired characters and dropping them squarely into a Weird Western setting. In addition to being one of the forerunners of urban fantasy, Nancy A. Collins also exhibits some pretty strong kung fu in crafting this pulpy supernatural horse opera. For readers who are fans of Joe R. Lansdale (naturally), Pinnacle’s Deadlands RPG, DC Comics’ Jonah Hex or Oni Press’ The Sixth Gun and its sequel, Shadow Roads series should give Hell Come Sundown a try. And if Collins ever decides to pen the further adventures of The Dark Ranger and Pretty Woman, I’d be more than happy to purchase that dime novel.