"Wraiths of the Broken Land" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press
Written by S. Craig Zahler
2013, 264 pages, Fiction
Released on May 16th, 2013
When I first received S. Craig Zahler's Wraiths of the Broken Land from Raw Dog Screaming Press for review, I was a bit perplexed. The book is a western novel, and checking the book's synopsis showed no mention of vampires, werewolves, zombies, or any other supernatural element. In fact, its description is a tale of a group of men on a quest to save two kidnapped women from prostitution. Why the hell would Raw Dog send this to me? Don't they know we're a horror site? Somewhat deterred, I decided to read the first chapter before I reached out to the publishing company explaining why I wouldn't be able to cover it for HorrorTalk. Then I read the second. Then the third. Before I knew it, I was plowing through the book like nobody's business and it didn't take long to see why I was sent this exquisite novel. In a way, I should have known better because there is nothing traditional about the books coming from Raw Dog Screaming Press, and this one is no exception. If nothing else, the sheer brutality that goes on within its pages is enough to fall under the horror umbrella.
Zahler sets the tone the book will follow within the first few pages. We find Yvette locked in a room against her will, clearly being forced to whore her body. An apparent drug addict, the woman tells one of the keepers that is demanding she eat that she will not do so until she gets her "medicine". They go back and forth until he pops her one and force feeds her. Trying another angle, she informs him that she will "make a mess" with the next client unless she gets what she wants. Nobody wants that. He leaves only to return with a dog a short time later. Lonely and miserable, Yvette quickly bonds with it. This leads to her captor brutalizing the animal to get the woman to comply. She does. End chapter one.
The above is merely my piss-poor description of the first pages of this novel. Zahler does a much better job with it, letting the entire scene drip with solitude, anger, fear, and cringe-worthy repercussions for Yvette. And things for everyone, good guys and bad, get far worse before all is said and done. I'm not even going to mention the "what the fuck?" moment Yvette has when she finds something in her lady parts that clearly isn't part of her anatomy.
The novel follows the Plugfords, a father and his two sons, as they head into Mexico to rescue the women of the Plugford clan. The job is too big for just the three, so they enlist the help of Long Clay (the patriarch's former partner in crime), Patch Up (a free black man who is clearly part of the family), Deep Lakes (an Indian who was outcast from his tribe), and Nathaniel (the eyes of which our story develops). Each character plays a pivotal role here as they make their way to Gris' – the man who has our kidnapped ladies – brothel.
What makes Wraiths of the Broken Land stand out from your average western and have it cross over into horror territory is the sheer, unrelenting violence of it all. The revenge genre is one of my favorites (easily top three); the more brutal the better, and Zahler does not disappoint. His style is fantastic, with this uncanny ability to make you want to turn away when he dishes out the pain, but just when you are about to, he reels it back. There are certainly some stomach-clinching moments, but it never seems to cross over into the torture porn territory (a genre which I'm so glad has more-or-less run its course, as I've really come to loathe it).
Zahler is also adept at writing razor sharp dialog, as well as creating varied and memorable characters. He seamlessly injects backstories into the majority of our players that make them incredibly well-rounded and developed. Many times in tales such as this, the characters tend to be one dimensional and stereotypical, but not here. From Yvette to Patches, each has their own motivation for doing the things they do. Zahler also wisely gives the least amount of history to Long Clay, the sociopathic gunslinger that handles the planning of the rescue as well as the dirty work that needs to be done. This guy is absolutely terrifying and completely unlikeable because of his deeds, but if it were me and a few friends versus an army of 60 mercenaries, he is the one I want on my team all day every day. I just don't want to be hanging out with him afterward. He's the type of character that you fear less the more you learn about him. Sometimes you just don't need the history of a character, and the author clearly knows this.
Zahler does everything right with Wraiths of the Broken Land. The book pulls you under and never lets you up, the cruelty he dishes out throughout the novel – to both our heroes and villains – is vicious at best, and the ending is so powerful that it's debatable as to who the victors really are in this bloodbath of a book. Do yourself a favor and read the first chapter for yourself right here at HorrorTalk. Just make sure to have your wallet close for when you are ready to purchase the novel, because that is only a taste of what you are in for.