Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: rougarou

The Last Bullet

(c) Dynamite comics

image ©Dynamite Comics

“The Wild West, that’s what they called it,” said the Ranger, his breath rasping like a blacksmith’s file on a horseshoe.

“Called it, you said. Called it. Called, not call,” said the figure in buckskins, kneeling beside him. The Ranger drew in his breath sharply and winced, his eyes shutting hard and his teeth clamping together in a rictus. When the pain eased a little, he opened his eyes again and looked long into the face of his kneeling companion.

“Yes, Tonto,” he said softly, “Past tense. The Wild West is dying, just as I am.”

His companion did not contradict him, did not say anything for several minutes.

“How come we got so old, you and me, Kemo Sabe?” he said at last. “How come the world got smaller the older we got?” There was no trace now of ‘Fort Indian’ in his voice, there was no one around to object to his talking like a white man – the only white man for miles was lying there by him, his head resting on a saddle, and that white man was his brother, as good as. Gently he tried to staunch the blood that ran from the deep gashes in the Ranger’s side, with a piece of cloth torn from a spare saddle-blanket. The Ranger winced again, and turned his head to look at the corpse lying about ten feet away from them.

“I never killed a man before today,” he said.

“You didn’t kill a man today,” said Tonto, looking over at the corpse as well. It seemed to be shrinking in size, becoming more emaciated, as though the desert sand was trying to claim it. A wind nagged at the clothes that covered it – the Levi’s, the old cattle duster pulled up around its waist, the battered sombrero that covered its head, the bandana knotted loosely round its neck. The corpse’s fingers were curled, as though they were clawing at the sand. It’s frame was big and broad still, even with the illusion of shrinking. Tonto did not want to lift the sombrero to check. He knew what he would see, and knew he wouldn’t like it. He shivered a little and told himself it was the fault of that nagging wind.

“That wasn’t a man,” he went on. “More like – my kin have a word – more like a Wendigo.”

“What will you do, Tonto?” said the Ranger, softly and hoarsely, changing the subject.

“Me? Go back to Canada, I guess.”

“You never told me what brought you to Texas in the first place.”

“You never asked.”

“True enough.”

Tonto continued to press the piece of blanket against the Ranger’s side, but the Ranger pushed his hand away.

“No. No. I’ll hold that,” he said. “There are three things I want you to do for me, Tonto, and you have to do them without question. First thing is, dig a grave for me, while there is still daylight. No, no, just do it. Second thing, once you’re through doing that, take my mask off, let me show my old face to the setting sun. Last thing – here! – take this. Take my gun. There’s one bullet left. One silver bullet.”

Tonto reached for the gun, but stopped.

“No. Not that. I can’t,” he said.

“Tonto, you must! You must! Or you’ll have no peace, ever. You can go to Canada, or Alaska, or China if you want to, but you’ll have no peace. This gun, this last bullet, they’ll protect you, and they’ll end this once and for all. They’ll put the final period at the end of an old legend, one we shouldn’t have been in. This is one story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto they’ll never tell, and by golly I’m glad of that. Leave me riding off into the sunset of some other tall tale, with someone asking who the masked man was. Let the other thing, that thing over there… well… I guess that’s died its own death… part of a different legend. With luck, me too.”

The Ranger’s voice had become very quiet, barely a whisper, as though giving these instructions to his companion had taken what remained of his strength. Tonto tucked the six-gun into his belt, propped the Ranger against the saddle with his face towards the setting sun, and untied the mask. Then he fetched the shovel an old prospector had given him, and set about digging a grave. He knew why he needed the grave. It would buy him time. From time to time he stopped digging and looked over at the Ranger. There was still something there in his sere face of the young man he had been at their first meeting, but it was buried beneath a few decades’ wear-and-tear, and now beneath pain too. Each time Tonto stopped to look, he listened for the Ranger’s breathing. Eventually there was none. He laid down the shovel and half-carried half-dragged the Ranger’s body to the grave, letting it fall in as gently as he could. But down in the grave it looked broken and untidy, nothing of his old friend left, so he quickly shoveled the dirt and sand on top.

When that task was over, Tonto sat with his back against the saddle. He took the pistol out of his belt and checked it, checked it again, and checked it a third time. He looked over at the corpse of the rougarou – there was no danger there, it was dead. It had taken four silver bullets from the Ranger’s gun and had kept coming. The fifth, fired at point blank range, had found its heart, but not before its teeth had ripped into the Ranger’s flesh. The sixth was still in the chamber. Tonto checked it again.

A little way off, the Ranger’s white horse – the third to have been given the name ‘Silver’ – whinnied. It was getting dark. The last glow of sunset faded from the horizon. The moon had risen behind Tonto in a cloudless sky, lighting up the desert, casting a shadow behind the little mound of earth he had piled over his dead friend, his dead brother. It was the last night of the full moon.

Tonto blinked a couple of times, wiped away something wet from his cheek, and cocked the pistol. Any disturbance to that little mound would give him some warning, he would be ready. This night’s watch was his. He would do what he had to do.

(c) Topps Comics

image ©Topps Comics

Jayhawkers, rougarous, and violent death: a review of Samuel Snoek-Brown’s ‘Hagridden’

(warning – this review contains plot spoilers)

Samuel Snoek-Brown
Columbus Press, OH, pp.241

Samuel Snoek-Brown will possibly turn out to be one of the best storytellers of the 21c. There’s a modernist feel to his storytelling, very often his plots don’t resolve, but rather give the sense that a process – a life – is going on, and that we have witnessed a part of a greater whole. The psychology of his characters is seldom explained but always clearly displayed, as readers have already seen in Boxcutters, his slim book of short stories. Now we have his first published novel, Hagridden, to consider. According to Sam, Hagridden isn’t the first novel he has ever written, owning up to other attempts when he was much younger, saying “they were books I had to write in order to learn how to write this one”. Teethcutters, you might say!

Hagridden is the story of two women who eke out an existence in the Louisiana bayous towards the end of the American Civil War. One way they survive is to murder fleeing soldiers of both sides and sell their weapons and accoutrements to a corrupt storekeeper. When a neighbour, a comrade of the younger woman’s dead husband, returns to his hut having deserted from the Confederate army, their existence is thrown out of kilter. Aficionados of Japanese film will instantly recognise that Hagridden owes a huge debt to Kaneto Shindo’s movie Onibaba (1964). This debt has never been a secret, although it is not directly acknowledged in the book. However, this is not the first time that a tale from medieval Japan has been transferred to 19c America, and it is not simply an adaptation of Onibaba; not only has the tale moved in time and location, but it has also switched media. There are also differences in the plot beyond that, some subtle, some very obvious.

The Civil War is a very powerful element of the USA’s national myth as well as of that nation’s actual history. The stiffness of 1860s daguerreotypes from which uniformed, bearded men stare out was taken forward into film and TV – Gone with the Wind, North and South, Gettysburg – with gallant officers, plantation ladies, and stoical slaves. Largely forgotten in popular culture is the devastation to lives on the periphery. That is where Sam Snoek-Brown sets Hagridden. The two women have been brutalised by poverty, and their consequent violence is graphically described. Sam doesn’t pull any bayonet-thrusts in his descriptions, he doesn’t let the reader look away at any time, forcing a confrontation in which not every reader will feel comfortable. There were times as I read when I wanted to beg for mercy, not for myself and my own sensibilities, but for a character. In the end, it was almost a surprise to learn who did and who did not survive. Mercy, however, isn’t an option, as the book is driven along by the worst in humanity, in nature, and in superstition. There is only one act of kindness in the book, and that seems to be nothing more than a device to allow two of the central characters to survive a little longer.

Hagridden is almost an amoral book. In fact I would guess that this is deliberately so, making its amorality a moral stance in its own right. Characters are allowed their own morality, as when one of the women rationalises the sins of murder and lust:

I ain’t talking about killing nothing. They’s bad and then they’s bad. What we do we do to survive and they ain’t no sin in that. But lust? Whoo girl, you got to look out for that they lust. Worst sin they is. Sinners what lusted after the flesh in this world, they turn to animals in the next. Crawl round on all fours like dogs and the brimstone burning off they knees, the skin off they palms. Some say rougarous is lusters coughed up from Hell to walk the earth.

werewolfA ‘rougarou’ (Fr. loup garou, werewolf) is what gives Hagridden its superstitious, supernatural element, although there is a mundane explanation to this creature’s appearance in the story. However the appearance of the second (or is it third?) rougarou is almost too convenient, almost that of a deus ex machina, and not the novel’s most convincing episode.

From the quoted passage above, it can be seen that much of the dialogue is written with a distinct ‘eye-dialect’. There are also what I call ‘fixers’ – usages which establish a time and place in a story. In the case of Hagridden, the fixers are Cajun-isms, notably the way characters address each other casually as ‘sha’ (chère), ‘vieux’, ‘petites’, and ‘boo’ (beau). They don’t always work, as when ‘boo’, normally said to a man, is addressed to the older woman (p.14), or when the ungrammatical ‘ma petit fils’ is used(p.158). Such solecisms may exist in the vernacular of Louisiana – I speak a little Louisiana French but am no expert – yet they look wrong on the page. As a general point of style, direct speech is not marked by any form of quotation marks. This meant that I had to look consciously for where speech started and ended. But this wasn’t a chore, and in fact it concentrated my attention, making the text as a whole feel very taut. Some readers might find the use of the word ‘nigger’ unpalatable, but if it was there in the actual speech of that time and place then it has to be there in this novel.

Human-on-human is not the only brutality of the novel. Greater than the violence and murder done by the characters on each other, and than the supernatural terror of the werewolf stalking the bayou, is the force of nature. A hurricane and tidal surge threatens to wash away everyone and everything, including the story (pp.193-200). One of the most compelling passages of the book comes here, as two characters watch an oddly-juxtaposed procession of domestic objects, animals, and people float by them in the flood. It is surreal, almost nightmarish.

Sam Snoek-Brown has been praised for his meticulous research while writing this novel. Although I have queried some details, I could see as I read that he had indeed paid a great deal of attention to historical authenticity. This was obviously something he wanted to achieve, an integral part of the exercise of writing the novel. I don’t want to belittle that achievement, but to me it wasn’t over-ridingly important. What was more important was the novel’s plausibility, its power to make me suspend disbelief and follow the story to the end. He achieved that with an expertise that made it seem easy. That’s the mark of a craftsman-author. This novel may be read ignoring my quibbles, and on that basis I recommend it fully.


Hagridden official web site