Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
There is perhaps no force better equipped to face off against the evils of hell than God’s servants on earth. The horror genre has seen its number of heroic priests. Robert E. Howard had his radical Puritan Solomon Kane and Brian Keene has found success with former-Amish medicine man Levi Stoltzfus. Joe R. Lansdale has southern preacher Jebediah Mercer.
The Reverend Jebediah Mercer is a deeply flawed individual. From his incestuous relationship with his sister to his struggle with the bottle, Mercer is not a good man. He is more likely to shoot you than preach the gospel. His God is the God of the Old Testament, an unmerciful being of anger and vengeance. The Reverend’s interests have less to do with saving souls, than destroying any ungodly creature that crosses his path.
Deadman’s Road is a collection of stories, written by Joe R. Lansdale, which feature The Reverend Jebediah Mercer. These include: “Dead in the West,” “Deadman’s Road,” “The Gentleman’s Hotel,” “The Crawling Sky,” and “The Dark Down There.” When published in 2013, it was the definitive collection of tales involving the Reverend and included the previously unreleased short story for which the collection was titled. However, since this time, a new Mercer story, “The Red-Headed Dead,” has appeared in the anthology Deadman’s Hand, edited by John Joseph Adams.
In Deadman’s Road, the Reverend is up against all number of beasties. There are zombies, werewolves, kobolds, and a cursed being that bleeds honey just to name a few. Monster design is atypical of standard horror fare. The werewolves are not just werewolves; they are cursed conquistadors whose weakness is oak. The zombies are not just zombies, but rather beings capable of limited speech and thought. They are commanded by a demon and burn in the sun’s light.
“Dead in the West,” previously released as a both a serial and a standalone novel, is arguably the best piece of weird west fiction ever written. The townsfolk of Mud Creek, blinded by their own prejudice, hang a Native American medicine man and kill his mulatto woman. With the man’s dying breath, he curses the town. He allows a demon to enter his body. Now with the power to command the dead, the Indian begins his quest for revenge.
The story is a play on Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Here evil begets evil. No one is innocent, not even our hero. While Mercer had nothing to do with the death of the medicine man, he was struggling with his own demons long before he rode into Mud Creek. It is time for the reverend to make peace with his God in the ultimate western showdown.
The remaining four stories represent variations on a similar theme. With one or two exceptions, people get what is coming to them. It is up to the Reverend Jebediah Mercer to save the day or at least to stop the evil from spreading past those who deserve it.
Deadman’s Road is a must read. Lansdale is often credited with defining and popularizing the genre of weird west fiction for good reason. Told in Lansdale’s straightforward style, these stories are accessible and unrelenting. They bear all the hallmarks of horror literature while keeping with the traditions and settings of the old west.
The Reverend Jebediah Mercer is a memorable and likeable character, even with his many flaws. There is believability and honesty to the man that makes us root for him no matter what. So if solving problems with the six-shooter might be your thing, saddle up for a ride and join the reverend on his quest to rid the world of evil.