Written by: James Keen
‘One of them was naked, his blood- drained body raked with deep, blue- edged gullies, half his chest torn away. The other, the one who had been Jim Corcoran, had no face— only a blood- oozing mask of shredded meat.’ Richard Matheson. ‘Shadows on the Sun’.
It seems that much like the equally prolific and entertaining Joe R Lansdale, Richard Matheson has tried his hand at virtually every genre there is. This novel is an interesting hybrid, using the elements of both the ‘Western’ and ‘Horror’ literary types to explore a uniquely American cultural schism. Originally published in 1994, it’s a work that may have slipped under the radar of readers who follow Matheson and it’s certainly one I wasn’t aware of until Matt Molgaard listed this in his summing-up of upcoming horror releases for February 2013. The book’s central premise is the intense cultural division between the ‘new world’ settlers and a fast-dwindling enclave of Apache Indians who are desperate to curb the escalating marginalisation of their land rights by their colonial neighbours.
Loosely set in mid-west America during the latter part of the Nineteenth century Matheson begins the book with a meeting between two opposing parties. On the one hand we have Leicester, the intolerant and racist leader of the U.S. Cavalry and on the other the wary Braided Feather, the elder Apache chief. Gathered together in a tent housing a few hundred people the conference is primarily negotiated by Billjohn Finley, an educated middle-aged go-between who is respected it seems by both parties. Finley demonstrates his knowledge of the Apache’s language and customs to great effect while balancing the argument with the stipulations demanded by the Cavalry, ultimately arriving at a conditional armistice. While the talks wind down, outside a prodigious rain-storm is gathering; a fittingly prophetic omen for the grisly events to follow.
The delicate truce that is arrived at through Finley becomes quickly strained as the novel gathers momentum; within hours settlers and Apaches are being murdered in horrifying ways by an unknown outside force. This sequence of events coincides with the arrival in town of an imposing stranger, described as being ‘…a massive statue of a man’ whose countenance is depicted as being closer to that of an animal than a human. As tensions rise it falls to Finley to become the voice of reason for both sides as the burgeoning wave of paranoia threatens to end the suspension of hostilities between the two factions.
A concisely written narrative taking place over a few autumnal days, it stumbles only during an exchange between Finley and his reluctant aide the Cavalry representative Boutelle; it’s here that Finley’s character becomes irritatingly preachy. It may have proven wiser to have spread Finley’s beliefs concerning the animosities between the warring groups in short doses throughout the text rather than as it’s presented here, in one ungainly chunk. Nearly two decades old now, this is a literary treat that still endures as an engrossing exercise in horror storytelling. It’s Matheson’s -unsurprisingly- confident handling of the plot and economical use of language that ensures a swift and pleasurable reading experience.
As an addendum to this piece I feel it should be pointed out that it appears this book is something of an homage to the science fiction and western writer Chad Oliver, who passed away in 1993. Oliver was not only a revered author but was also head of the anthropology department at the University of Texas. Matheson, in his story – perhaps as more than a cursory nod to Oliver’s research – has included a character who is a doctor of cultural anthropology, ‘Dodge’, whose role is integral to the book’s plot. Having not read the work I can only conclude that Matheson’s intent is that his sound-alike effort should be considered as a kind of companion piece to Oliver’s earlier tome, ‘Shadows In The Sun’.
Order this gem right here.
Rating: 3.5/ 5