I’ve never been big on westerns. I mean, sure there are some great western movies – the man with no name films, the Django series, Magnificent Seven, etc. But I only like these because they’re great movies. I would never anticipate a movie purely because it’s a western. Not in the same way that I would watch a film noir, a sci-fi, or a horror, just because I like the genre. And I’ve never thought about picking up a western book.
Until Hawthorne. Because it’s Heath Lowrance, because it fuses southern gothic, horror, and westerns into one big unholy mess, and just because it sounds like a great idea. At least, that’s why I read the first one, That Damned Coyote Hill.
I read the others because the first one is so damned good.
Here’s the thing, though. Yes, the taciturn anti-hero with the cross-shaped scar on his forehead is a fantastic character. Yes, the plots, the characters and the action kept me hooked. And yes, the brooding atmosphere, dark and fearful, full of unseen menace and suspense, is fantastically executed. All these things make them good stories. But where Lowrance gets clever is this: He had a great idea, and he’s not telling you what it is.
Most writers have a great idea for a story, or a character, or a set up, and they write it down. They put it all in the story. In the Hawthorne books, the thing that really elevates them is what the author isn’t saying. He’s not going to explain anything - not about Hawthorne, and not about the evils he faces down. Most importantly he’s just going to keep up the atmosphere, the tension, and the unholy creeping fear that stains every page. Hawthorne may be a great character, but we keep dragging along with him because, just like Hawthorne, we don’t understand the world in which he works. It’s a world full of unexplained horrors, and like Hawthorne we can only face these one at a time. The pace of the story doesn’t allow Hawthorne to ask any questions, so we don’t get any answers.
It’s something Lowrance does well. Ben over at Dead End Follies puts it this way: "What Heath Lowrance nailed that most writers failed at is to create the strong-silent, mysterious type properly. Most authors feel obligated to weigh down their tough guy with a weepy backstory of murder, helplessness and revenge, in the name of character development. There is none of that to Hawthorne... Giving his stories such a lean diet of emotional content, Lowrance frees the space to write some really impressive stuff. There is always a part of the setting that's a character itself.”
Then again, maybe there’s no great idea behind it. As Heath commented about writing the first story, Hawthorne is “on a mission to seek out and destroy evil wherever he finds it. Why? I didn’t know at the time, but it didn’t really matter.”
And perhaps it doesn’t matter, so long as the stories keep coming. The second book, The Long Black Train (my favourite so far) answers no questions. In fact it keeps adding to the mysteries about the man and the dark things that inhabit his world. Superbly executed, it’s full of gore, but Lowrance is smart enough to know how to use the blood. It doesn’t fulfill the set up, only adds to it. And the third, The Spider Tribe, has one of the most disgusting, grisly creatures I’ve come across in a long time. A visceral, biological, Cronenburg-like terror. More questions are asked than answered, but that’s the great thing about the format. The stories are long enough to be complete, and to keep adding to the mystery. But they’re also short enough to avoid any kind of filler. We don’t need the character padded out, because both the protagonist and the stories are as much about the world we don’t see as the world we do. That’s what keeps the brooding, menacing atmosphere so strong. We like the unexplained just as it is.
And the stories do keep coming. Sure, eventually we’ll need more. Word is there are some old tales come to light in the latest installment. And there you go, one reason I like these stories is because Heath is so sparing with the back story, and yet I can’t wait to find out more. But not too much more, not too soon. As long as there are unanswered questions, as long as some things remain unexplained and mysterious, then there's scope for more Hawthorne books.
The fourth story, Bad Sanctuary, is out now from Beat to a Pulp. It’ll be on my Kindle very soon.