Edited by David Boop
(Baen, July 2017, 272 pp., tpb)
Reviewed by Robert L Turner III
Straight Outta Tombstone is a Baen anthology collecting some of today’s most popular authors with stories set in various permutations of the wild west. The stories vary from humorous to horrific with a strong dash of steampunk. Most readers will find several stories that fit their tastes and may be introduced to a new favorite author.
The lead off story is Larry Correia’s “Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers.” Set in his Monster Hunter International universe, the story tells of Bubba Shackleford, the founder of MHI, and his first trip out west. Those who are familiar with the MHI universe will feel right at home. The story gives Correia the chance to establish Shackleford’s personality and to set a starting point for some of the themes and traits of his universe. It also allows him to stress his theme of individual, rather than group identity.
The story itself is exactly what one would expect from an MHI story. There are monsters to be defeated, in this case an offended earth spirit and its minions, and a bounty to be collected. At the same time the heart of the tale is the “flexible minded” Shakleford coming to grips with his unexamined prejudices. The world building and hints of a larger story leave the reader expecting more tales set in the period. Any fan of the MHI series will want to read the story, both for its content and for how it builds the universe. Those unfamiliar with Correia will get a good taste of his writing style and thematic interests as part of a solid adventure story.
Jody Lynn Nye continues the anthology with “Trouble in an Hourglass.” The title is a double reference to Kerrilynn aka “Trouble,” the female protagonist of the story, and her father’s time machine. The premise is the familiar time travel loop plot where the narrator and Trouble have to manage multiple trips to the past to stop a stagecoach robber and his gang while their budding relationship forms. Nye deftly manages the twists and turns of the plot, but the tale contains no surprises. The story provides a quick, entertaining read.
“The Buffalo Hunters” is Sam Knight’s entry and takes the reader back to the days when shooting buffalo out of the window of a moving train was common. The story involves two guides, Tommy and Marcus who are escorting a Russian noble and his attractive daughter out west. From the beginning Knight uses the Russians to present the reader with an outsider’s view and to question the norms of the period. However, this doesn’t veer into preaching since the characters are clearly men and women of their time.
After shooting a large number of buffalo, the Baron refuses to let the meat go to waste and instead disembarks to feast on his kills. Rather than a restful few days, the group encounters a Ya’kwahe, a bearlike monster, and are forced to fight for their lives. When they do, the Baron reveals a personal secret of his own. The story is fast paced, evocative and well formed. This is likely to be a reader favorite.
Robert E. Vardeman tells the tale of Professor William McConnell in “The Sixth World.” Dr. McConnell, formally of Harvard, is a disgraced phrenologist and when a map to a special burial site comes into his possession, he leaps at the chance to regain his reputation. After he falls into a pit, he suspects the worst until he his rescued by an unlikely savior, a medicine man named Red Horse. Together they head to the source of the doctor’s fascination, a place inhabited by little gray men.
Vardeman does an interesting job of melding a number of genres into one and getting them to mesh. My greatest complaint is that the length of the story didn’t allow for a more complete development. It feels like the idea was too large for the space provided.
“Easy Money” by Phil Foglio tells of a group of skinners working with a different kind of animal. The story is very short and any details would ruin the surprise, but the tale moves swiftly and is skillfully written. The punch, when it comes, is clever and ironic at its best.
Set at the turn of the century “The Wicked Wild” by Nicole Givens Kurtz is a mystical piece. Zara, a freed slave, now a washerwoman in New Mexico, has a magical gift inherited from her ancestors. When a local is possessed by a demonic being, she becomes its target. The story is rich and textured with clever world building that universalizes the conflict between the antagonists, the powers they hold and society as a whole. The work is fairly subtle and the conclusion is satisfying without becoming pat.
“Chance Corrigan and the Lord of the Underworld” by Michael A. Stackpole is set in a steampunk Old West where Chance Corrigan faces an old enemy, the disgraced younger brother of the leader of a world controlling cabal, Hubert Palmerstone. An entertaining mix of light and seriousness, Stackpole’s story is a game of cat and mouse as Corrigan manipulates Palmerstone while a larger game unfolds just out of sight. This story manages to perfectly hit the balance between serious and tongue-in-cheek and makes the reader want to see more of the author’s universe.
In “The Greatest Guns in the Galaxy” by Bryan Thomas Schmidt and Ken Scholes, two Andromedans travel back in time to find and kill the greatest gunslinger in the Old West, but when he proves to be little challenge they decide to resurrect the man he killed instead. This leads to problems with causality as well as a zombie infestation and the two adventurers, Jailak and Mairej, have to sort things out. I found the story uninteresting. It is difficult to successfully mix genres and this combination of Old West, time travel, alien invasion and zombie apocalypse fails to gel. The story is certainly readable, but it is also forgettable.
Maurice Broaddus’s “Dance of Bones” is the story of Bose Roberds, a former Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor recipient, now cook and tracker for the Circle T ranch. After a conflict in town, the ranch’s cattle drive is followed by an unknown rider and, as the cows fall ill, the story of what happened at the local whorehouse starts to come out. The story is well paced with deep detail, believable interactions and a villain whose motivations are clear and justifiable. Broaddus does an excellent job of adding a dread type horror element to the western tableau.
“Dry Gulch Dragon” is Sarah A. Hoyt’s entry in the collection. This story is set in a magical version of the Old West where the frontier is the border between civilized society and the magical creatures who have been pushed back by human expansion. Jack returns to his home in Dry Gulch after some business back east only to find his sister missing and his house upended. As a result, he and the local were-dragon are forced to rescue her before she becomes the elves’ solstice sacrifice. As they come to her aid, Jack learns that perhaps dragons are decent human beings too. The story is an interesting example of fantasy overlaying western history and develops Hoyt’s theme of clever women and unexpected allies well, while also commenting on class and racial relationships. The story does lack a bit of subtlety, but is a solid and enjoyable read.
Alan Dean Foster adds “The Treefold Problem: A Mad Amos Malone story” to the list of entries. Set in Wisconsin, the story opens as Potter Scunsthorpe is claiming possession of a farm tract whose owners, the Hargraves, have not met the final payment and conditions. The conflict is interrupted by Amos Malone, a Paul Bunyon type character who helps save the farm. The story is told in a traditional style with an excess of archaic vocabulary and the broad humor typical of tall tales. The story is entertaining but eminently predictable due to the nature of such tall tales.
In “Fountains of Blood,” David Lee Summers presents us with a man who unwittingly comes into contact with the world of vampires while acting as a bodyguard to a prominent lawyer. When they are ambushed on the way to Las Cruces, Billy discovers that he doesn’t really know the man he was protecting as well as he thought. The story is a competently told vampire tale but nothing more.
Kevin J. Anderson adds a Dan Shambles story to the collection with “High Midnight.” Shambles and some friends are enjoying the opening night of a ghostly Old West show when he discovers that some of the performers have come for vengeance on him for his ancestor’s role as a marshal in the Old West. The story develops with the lighthearted tone characteristic of the Shambles stories and victory is won thanks to some quick thinking and a good lawyer. Anderson keeps the tone light and the pacing brisk. If you enjoy the other Shambles stories this is a fun addition to the collection.
“Coyote” by Naomi Brett Rourke is best described as a revenge fantasy. After her father is hung based on a false accusation, the apache, Cocheta, and her grandfather, Itza-chu, spend every day in the White Man’s town, waiting. When they finally meet the man who caused her father’s death, who she labels the Dandy, Cocheta shares with him the story of Coyote and Yellow Jacket. The results are unpleasant for him. This story is readable, but the characters are exceedingly flat and that kills the story’s potential. The grandfather, the revenge seeking girl, the Dandy, etc. all come from central casting and lack believability. The Dandy is especially unidimensional and devoid of anything other than malice.
“The Key” by Peter J Wacks is the penultimate entry and opens in Yuma, AZ as a Chinese gunslinger girl begins the frame for a time traveling steampunk tale involving Rasputin, Nicolai Tesla, Winston Churchill and more. Hummingbird and Inazuma, a clockwork enhanced gunslinger and samurai respectively, are hired to help move a complex device called the key while avoiding the seemingly inevitable death that the device shows them in their future. To complicate matters, they must also protect the little girl, Qi, who has the ability to activate it. The story is clever, well-paced and has a tight ending that promises more. In many ways it feels like an updated version of something we would expect from the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd.
The final entry, titled “A Fistful of Warlocks,” comes from Jim Butcher. Set in the Dresden Files universe, the story tells of an exploit of Warden Luccio as she hunts down a warlock hiding somewhere in Dodge City. When she discovers that it is five sorcerers, not one, she teams up with Wyatt Earp to take them down. Butcher puts together a number of elements mentioned in previous work to create an interesting backstory that will be greatly appreciated by his fans. For those who are not familiar with his work, the story is still an action packed tale which works well and has a satisfying conclusion.
Robert Turner is a professor, a long term SF reader, and teaches SF in his university’s honors program.