trade yer coffin

trade yer coffinTrade Yer Coffin for a Gun by Mer Whinery is one truly weird Western. It reads like a mash up of From Dusk Till Dawn, High Plains Drifter, and Zombie–this is a big, bold, B movie of a book that revels in its inspirations. Let’s face it: any tale that brings in references to Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci right from the start is going for a certain tone. And it achieves it.

A Wild and Witchy West

The story follows Jubilee “Sugar” Bava, her twin brother Cutter, and their elder brother Micah–mercenary gunslingers collectively known as The Haints. Orphaned and driven out of their home town of Coffin Mills by corrupt officials, the trio are lured back to battle a supernatural threat to the town’s children. Of course, the opportunity for bloody revenge has something to do with it, too.

Did I mention that Sugar Bava is also the Witch of Fulci Holler? And that there are not one, but two monstrous horrors to defeat? And that another witch shows up to help?

Over the top is an understatement. Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun has vampires, witches, ghouls, zombies, prostitutes, gunslingers, necrophilia, black magic, white magic, Satanism, and a little Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. There is so much packed into Trade Yer Coffin for a Gun that a lot of potentially interesting details get pushed to the side from sheer lack of space. Micah’s tragic marriage, one monster’s connection to another, Sugar’s need to drink blood–all are dropped into the story without context. They left me wondering, and wishing for an explanation.

Riders of the Purple Prose

Whinery does a solid job of evoking the bleak, haunted North Texas where Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is set, describing scenes in cinematic detail. All his characters speak in a thick television Western dialect, where guns are irons and the sheriff is the law, adding nicely to the atmosphere. Everywhere, his use of language is enthusiastic, and his prose incredibly, abundantly purple. For example: “It ventured a step further toward Sugar, reaching out an emaciated, sore-riddled arm, a root-like latticework of black veins squirming beneath the cemetery of its skin.” Or,  “Its corrugated surface glistened with an oozing pink slime and was lit from within by a sinister orange fairy fire, phantoms and forms fluttering clumsily inside the nimbus of the illumination.”

Despite the overall overstatement, there are some quieter, finely tuned descriptions among all the gore: “The sort of quiet that came before carefully chosen words”, and “The town of Coffin Mills went bad that day, and never knew the Grace of God again.”

However, the sloppy editing throughout the book interferes with the raucous action and undermines the atmosphere-building. For example, the first chapter heading promises a cold October night, but twice in the following pages we are told it is spring. Sugar Bava rides a pure white mare that several pages later has a chestnut mane. And littered throughout are overlooked typos that make the characters’ dialect harder to read than it should be.

Trade Yer Coffin for a Copy

After all is said and done, Trade Yer Coffin For A Gun is an entertaining page-turner for those with a taste for horror and gleefully excessive  gore. I don’t know how well it would stand up to a second reading, but the first time through was good, old-fashioned, gross-out fun.

Anthony Boucher
Anthony Boucher

While I’m on the subject of Western horror…I mentioned Anthony Boucher’s “They Bite” in my review of Bone Tomahawk—not for the shared love of lopped off extremities or strange cannibal tribes or even the old tropes linked to the native dead and their burial grounds, but because of the real-world basis and enduring creepiness of each work’s monsters.

Have you ever read a story that gets under your skin, like a splinter you can’t remove? Some tales never lose their power to frighten, no matter how familiar they become. Anytime I have been challenged to name a prime example of a horror story, “They Bite” is first on my list. Published in Unknown in August, 1943, it was a weird Western before the genre truly existed, and it is never too far from my attention.

Boucher, who cut his teeth writing for Weird Tales, Unknown, and Astounding Science Fiction, often infused his stories with a light, humorous touch. But there is nothing funny about “They Bite.” It is a tightly told story of the look-over-your-shoulder variety, peopled with creatures that were men, once. He makes excellent use of repetition and suggestion to drive home the existence of his tenacious predators.

They Bite
They Bite–Abandoned Dwellings

Set in the desert of California, “They Bite”’s Carkers lurk around the town of Oasis, hidden, hungry, snatching what they can. Boucher builds a legend up around them with a few cultural references and a few dangerously imprecise descripives: “something moved, something little and thin and brown as the earth. Too large for a rabbit, much too small for a man”, and, “something like a man and something like a lizard, and something like the things that flit across the corner of the eye”, and,“something very dry and thin and brown, only when you look around it isn’t there. Ever see it?”, and, “you glimpse lean, dry things out of the corner of your eye… take the Carkers and the things you don’t quite see and you put ’em together. And they bite.”

“They Bite” is sort of a cross between Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Night of the Living Dead. Hugh Tallant, the main character of the story, is not a good person. He is greedy and lazy, willing to kill in order to steal a prospector’s gold and happy to blame the murder on a local legend. The Carkers of the story come from a long line of bogeymen, both historical and imagined:

“Ever hear of Sawney Bean? …Or let’s be more modern—ever hear of the Benders? Kansas in the 1870s? No? Ever hear of Procrustes? Or Polyphemus? Or Fee-fi-fo-fum? There are ogres, you know. They’re no legend. They’re fact, they are…you’ll find ’em everywhere. All over Europe and pretty much in this country too before communications became what they are.”

Sawney Bean--part of They Bite's background
Sawney Bean—part of They Bite’s background

But they are not, strictly speaking, cannibals. They might have been only that, once, but they’ve changed under the desert sun: “Maybe they put together what the Indians knew and what they knew, and it worked. Maybe Whatever they made their sacrifices to understood them better out here than in Kansas”.

So it is that Tallant discovers not only are the legends true accounts, but that he badly misjudged his ability to get away with murder. Counting on fear of the Carker legend to cover his tracks, Tallant steps into his own trap: “he noticed the infinitesimal rise and fall of the chest. The Carker was not dead. It was sleeping”.

While the desert setting gives “They Bite” its weird Western flavor, the horror hinges on the relentless reminders of the danger of lean, dry things seen at the corner of the eye. The Carkers stand in the place between fact and superstition as Boucher weaves together the frontier fears of the unknown with native legends and documented human depravity. It is a beautifully-made story that will continue to creep around the edges of your awareness for a long time to come.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!