Imagine it’s the 1950s, and Hammer Films has hired John Ford to direct one of their vampire movies. But they want Ford to set the story in the Wild West as he had with Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine and so many other films. It’s this curious blend of vampires and cowboys that’s at the center of John M. Whalen’s fun and gripping novel Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto (Flying W Press, 2013).
Whalen does a fine job at making vampires and werewolves somehow fit the old West. They comprise the outlaw gangs that terrorize the territories. Werewolves rob trains. Vampires ravage rural towns. And monster hunter Mordecai Slate does his best to stop them.
Whalen also knows how to complicate his protagonist’s main goal, which is an interesting one here. Slate is hired — not to kill a vampire — but to keep one alive. The stakes are raised (so to speak) when Slate suffers a gunshot while assisting a young woman traveling alone. And the vampire he’s transporting has a protective vampire brother. And the vampire brother has a vampire gang. Complicateder and complicateder.
Whalen adeptly stitches together familiar motifs from vampire stories and cowboy tales. There’s the clergyman who’s lost his faith, the doctor who’s lost his license, and the up-and-coming gunslinger who’s having Oedipal issues with the established gunslinger. The blood-transfusion scenes are a nice nod to Dracula. But Whalen adds some fresh touches, too. The vampires can transform into big lizard-like monsters. That young gunslinger has a romantic history with that young woman traveling alone, and it would have been tough in this day and age to have them simply go off and get married in the end. The message would have been: capable women should give up their independence to support emotionally immature guys. Whalen found a startling way around ending things this way, one that completely spins the happily-ever-after convention.
It’s Slate himself, though, who I found interesting. He’s human — and not just in terms of species. One gathers that his reputation might be grander than the man himself, given that he makes miscalculations and, in the end, doesn’t predict a major plot reversal. What motivates Slate to hunt monsters is discussed, but Whalen wisely keeps that unresolved. Is it for the good he does, or is it for the pay he receives? I’m not sure Slate himself knows, and that makes him interestingly complex and authentic.
Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto is a fun and often clever novel that will very likely please readers intrigued by this intriguing crossing of genres.