I don’t typically read westerns. Heck, I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually read an entire western novel. But I could tell from the title – THE DEAD SHERIFF: ZOMBIE DAMNATION – that Mark Justice’s new novel was no ordinary western, so I gave it a try. I’m glad I did.
Mild plot spoilers follow.
There’s a new lawman roaming the Wild West and he’s not your typical sheriff. In fact, he’s a reanimated corpse wearing what seems to be a magical talisman. He’s also merciless killer: the Dead Sheriff’s idea of justice is for evil-doers to pay for their crimes with their lives. He’s not just a rotting corpse, he also seems to be mostly invulnerable to bullets and other damage. Sure, you can shoot him and knock him down, but he’ll get back up and finish the job in short order. The eponymous “Dead Sheriff” is accompanied by a mysterious young Indian named Cheveyo. I’m not going to give away one of the main surprises in the novel – it comes about a third of the way through – but suffice it to say that there’s a good deal more going on with the eponymous Dead Sheriff and his companion than initially meets the eye. The sheriff and his companion are accompanied by the novel’s viewpoint character, Richard O’Malley, a Boston reporter who – intrigued by wire reports about a dead man killing criminals – has traveled out west to see what’s really going on. O’Malley is a bit of a hapless cipher, and while he doesn’t detract from the novel, he doesn’t add much either. Oddly enough, he’s probably the weakest character in the novel. Corrupt televangelists apparently weren’t just a problem during the 1980s; here we also have a disreputable preacher, Reverend Ludlow Skaggs (what a great name!) as the primary villain of the piece. Skaggs is backed by an army of brutal thugs who have helped him take over a town called Damnation. Like all good westerns, there’s a climactic and highly satisfying showdown between the Dead Sheriff and the villain, as well as a number of great action sequences and gun battles throughout the novel.
I was especially intrigued by the future volumes to the series that the author promises in an Afterword. There he briefly mentions crazed cannibal brothers, a traveling vampire bordello, a posse made of other masked vigilantes, a time traveler, and the talisman’s original owner and his demonic sidekick – how can you go wrong with any of those? There are a number of mysteries remaining unresolved in DEAD SHERIFF, and the basic premise still has a great deal of potential. I had not previously come across any of Mark Justice’s work, but on further examination, he’s a relatively prolific author, so I’m looking forward to checking out his other work. Justice has definitely got a way with words, and is able to infuse action with just the right mix of dark humor.
Strongly recommended, especially for fans of the “Weird West” who enjoy some supernatural elements mixed in with their westerns, and those looking for a highly atypical zombie novel. This is a fast-paced, highly cinematic, pulpy supernatural western with a great premise. I look forward to more from Mark Justice.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers