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At first glance, one would say, "Hey, HorrorTalk, S. Craig Zahler's Wraiths of the Broken Land looks like a western. Why the hell would you be covering that?"
To which we would point to this synopsis:
A brutal and unflinching tale that takes many of its cues from both cinema and pulp horror, Wraiths of the Broken Land is like no Western you've ever seen or read. Desperate to reclaim two kidnapped sisters who were forced into prostitution, the Plugfords storm across the badlands and blast their way through Hell. This gritty, character-driven piece will have you by the throat from the very first page and drag you across sharp rocks for its unrelenting duration. Prepare yourself for a savage Western experience that combines elements of Horror, Noir and Asian ultra-violence. You've been warned.
And you might say, "Hell? Noir? Asian ultra-violence? Okay, you almost have me sold."
Then we'd point out just some of the people with some high praise for this book:
"Zahler's a fabulous story teller whose style catapults his reader into the turn of the century West with a ferocious sense of authenticity." — Kurt Russell, star of Tombstone, Escape from New York, Dark Blue, and Death Proof.
"If you’re looking for something similar to what you’ve read before, this ain’t it. If you want something comforting and predictable, this damn sure ain’t it. But if you want something with storytelling guts and a weird point of view, an unforgettable voice, then you want what I want, and that is this." — Joe R. Lansdale author of Edge of Dark Water.
"It would be utterly insufficient to say that Wraiths is the most diversified and expertly written western I've ever read. You'll smell the stink, taste the blood, feel the grit, hear the screams, and blow the burned gunpowder right out of your nose. Zahler puts his reader into possession of the dim, grim era with the command of guys like Max Brand and Owen Wister, and unleashes an avalanche of action like a genetic cross between Peckinpah, Takashi Miike, and Abel Ferrara." — Edward Lee author of The Bighead and Gast.
"Wraiths always rings true, whether it's visiting the depths of despair, the fury of violence, or the fragile ties that bind us together for good or ill. It's a Western with heart and intelligence, always vivid, with characters you will detest or care about or both, powerfully written." — Jack Ketchum author of I'm Not Sam.
I don't know about you, but if it's good enough Snake Plisken, Joe Lansdale, Ed Lee, and Jack Ketchum, who the hell am I to argue?
Enjoy the entire first chapter exclusively for HorrorTalk, courtesy of Raw Dog Screaming Press!
The woman who had forgotten her name shifted upon the damp mattress, and the raw sores across her back, buttocks and arms sang out in a chorus of pain. She turned onto her left side to relieve the wounds. As her legs closed, something hard and unfamiliar press against her vaginal walls, and she said, “Lord...” The woman slid her right hand to her pelvis, poked her fingertips inside, touched a hemispherical lump and withdrew it like a pearl from an oyster. After a moment of lightheadedness, she opened her eyes and looked at the thing pinched in-between her right thumb and index finger and saw that it was a dead baby turtle.
The sight of the deceased creature should have shocked her, but the woman who had forgotten her name felt only a detached curiosity regarding the extracted inhabitant, as if she were listening to nearby strangers discuss a topic of mild interest.
Beside her bed and nestled within small cubbyholes were two candles that yielded the overripe smells of flowers, cinnamon and vanilla and a small amount of amber light. In this cloying luminance, the woman appraised the dead baby turtle that had been inserted into her for some obscure purpose by a man whom she thankfully could not remember. The creature had died with its head and legs withdrawn into its shell, wholly isolated from the world, and she envied it.
Far fouler things had intruded upon her during the past eight months of her subterranean perdition.
For no reason that she understood, the woman set the circular corpse upon her pillow, beside tangled locks of her long blonde hair, and ran a fingertip gently across its crenulate shell. The baby turtle’s head slid from the front aperture and dangled, flaccid.
“Reina!” The voice was male, and it penetrated wood and stone.
The woman looked away from the tiny corpse and across the chamber, at the thick, iron-braced wooden door set in the far wall.
“Foods,” announced the man.
Unable to locate her nightgown, the woman pulled a blanket that was coarse with dried semen over her bare body.
A line of yellow light appeared at the edge of the door and grew into a seven-foot tall oblong. Within the rectangle of luminance stood the man with the wooden nose, the hombre who brought the canister. The candle flames glinted upon his rubber slicker.
The woman said, “Not hungry,” and shook her head. “No food. No comida para mi.”
The man with the wooden nose ignored her statements and rolled the canister into the room, steering it by the lever that jutted from its top. The wheels beneath the vessel squeaked like tortured rodents, and the abused woman felt the shrill sounds within the fluids of her eyeballs.
“Foods,” announced the man with the wooden nose as he parked the canister beside her bed. He leaned over and unwound a corporeal tube from the side of the device.
Repulsed by the thought of eating, the woman said, “No food.” Her quavering body needed something else.
The man with the wooden nose brought the dripping end of the pig’s intestine toward the woman’s mouth, but she pursed her lips and turned her head away. The tube dribbled viridescent drops onto the blanket.
“Reina must eat and keep beautiful.” Air whistled through the nostrils that had been drilled into the man’s false nose, and his small obsidian eyes stared. He raised the end of the pig’s intestine to his mouth, licked a drop of soup from the tip, smiled and nodded. “Bueno. Is good.”
The woman pointed to the dark marks upon her bony arms and said, “I need more.”
“No more medicine.”
Like a fire throughout desiccated woodlands, fear consumed her interiors. “I…I need more.” Her mouth dried up. “I need more medicine, it’s been days since—”
“No more.” The man with the wooden nose raised the dripping tip of the pig intestine. “Por favor reina, tu—”
“I won’t eat until I get medicine.”
A fist slammed into the woman’s stomach. She gasped for air, and the pig intestine entered her mouth. The man with the wooden nose clamped her jaw shut and pumped the canister lever with his right foot. Soup that tasted like garlic, mildew and rotten chicken flooded down the woman’s throat and into her stomach. She tried to call out, but instead sputtered sour broth through her nostrils.
The man with the wooden nose pumped another sour burst of soup into her, watched her swallow, withdrew the tube and began to coil it around the canister. “You needs sleep. In three days is big fiesta. You have muy important customers, and the boss wants—”
“Get me medicine,” demanded the woman.
“No more medicine. It is making you sick. Customers complain that you have cold hands and your hairs is falling out.”
Without the opiate’s protection, the woman could not endure another fiesta. “I’ll make trouble if you don’t get me medicine. I’ll mess the bed again.”
“No.” The man with the wooden nose frowned. “No do that.”
“You get me medicine or I’ll mess the bed when a client is here. Make big trouble for everyone.”
The man with the wooden nose whistled through his nostrils, turned away from the recumbent woman, rolled his canister from the room, shut the door and twisted the key.
Alone and full of foul food, the prisoner grew drowsy and fell asleep. In her dream, she was a happily-married choirmaster who lived in San Francisco. Her name was Yvette.
Yvette awakened. Her negligee (which she did not remember donning), face and hair were damp with the sweat of withdrawal. She opened her eyes and saw less. The bedside candles had guttered while she slept, and the room was dark, excepting the small amount of light that crept beneath the oaken door. At the foot of her bed she descried a vaguely triangular shape, like that of a cloaked figure, and felt fear.
The intruder wheezed.
“Who’s there?” asked Yvette.
The intruder breathed, clicked his tongue and sneezed explosively. Yvette gasped and released a small amount of urine.
A wet tongue slid across the bottom of her right foot, and she hastily retracted the appendage. The triangular shape sniffed thrice, orbited the bed, paused beside her pillow and panted. The smells that reached the woman’s nostrils were those of meat and marrow.
Yvette placed her right hand upon a damp snout. The dog whimpered with pleasure at her touch, unfurled its meaty tongue and licked the salt that had dried upon her wrist.
After she emptied her bladder into the metal pot that she kept beneath her mattress, Yvette struck a match, shared the flame with a candlewick and snuffed the phosphorous head inside a crack in the wall.
The dog was a rusty, fifty-pound male mongrel with pointy ears, wise eyebrows and a big beard that sprouted in all directions from its long snout. The guileless animal stared at her directly, as would an innocent child or a lover.
It had been many months since Yvette had looked into the eyes of anyone that she did not loathe, and she felt tears track down her cheeks. The drops lingered at the edge of her chin and dripped onto the sodden mattress.
Unimpressed by its surroundings, the distinguished dog scratched its side and inspected a toenail.
“Howdy,” Yvette said to the creature.
The dog’s mouth opened and shut, as if the animal had intended to speak, but then decided against so doing. It sat upon its haunches and lifted its right paw.
“You know how to shake hands?”
The beast eyed her imperiously.
Yvette leaned forward to clasp the proffered appendage, but was seized by the sickness of withdrawal in a horrible flood. She reached beneath her bed, retrieved the metal pot and violently dislodged the major part of the soup that had been forced into her earlier that evening. Sweat coated her flush, down-turned face and she heaved again.
For a ponderous and inert moment, she dripped.
Yvette pulled tangled twines of hair from her mouth, spat sour detritus into the collected excreta and did her best not to inhale the mephitic odors that would certainly bring about another round of retching.
She replaced the pot, laid back and stared up at the cracked ceiling. When strangers slobbered upon her breasts, as if she were their mother and could somehow return them to a state of ecstatic infancy, or entered her canal, she gazed up at the riven stone and imagined that she was a bug crawling across its coarse surface. Some fellows wanted her to look at them and playact affections, but not until the man with the wooden nose had given her medicine had she been able to render these services.
The hope that she would be saved from her terrible perdition had dwindled each month, and although it had not yet disappeared, it was a miniscule mote of dust. Whenever she spoke to the Lord, Yvette asked Him to send rescuers or call her up to be at His side. She had suffered for far too long. Perhaps the dog was a friend sent by Him to comfort her as her life came to its miserable conclusion?
Yvette sat up, felt a wave of pain, pulled her bony ankles across the bed and set the soles of her feet upon the carpet. Trembling, she reached out and said, “Shake hands.”
The dog sneezed and yawned, but did not proffer a paw.
Yvette pondered the animal’s reluctance and said, “Mano,” which was the Spanish word for ‘hand.’
As if it were about to take a solemn oath, the distinguished canine raised its right paw.
The captive woman shook the appendage and released it. “So you’re a Mexican?”
The dog sneezed.
“I won’t hold it against you.” Yvette ruminated for a moment and remembered the Spanish word for ‘talk.’ “Habla.”
The dog woofed, and the burst of loud air made its beard flap.
Metal squeaked on the far side of the room. Yvette and her distinguished roommate looked at the door. Beyond the open portal and silhouetted by a torch that was ensconced in the hallway stood the man with the wooden nose. Instead of his usual slicker, he wore brown trousers and a fancy burgundy shirt. His small eyes caught the candle flames and shone like two distant stars.
“You like Henry?” inquired the man with the wooden nose.
Yvette felt evil creep into the room.
The man scratched his neck and pointed an index finger at the dog. “His name is Henry. You like him?”
“I sicked up the food you gave me.” Yvette leaned over and retrieved the metal pot filled with her yields. “In here. Can you—”
“Henry is circus dog from Mexico City,” said the man with the wooden nose. “The ringmaster die, and his daughter sells away the animals to buy him un coffin.”
“I am hungry,” Yvette said in an effort to redirect the conversation. “Tengo hambre. Would you—”
“Henry.” The dog looked at the tiny pinpricks of light that were the man’s eyes. “¡Vengaqui!” (Yvette knew that this meant ‘Come here.’)
The dog walked toward the man with the wooden nose.
The dog paused.
The dog sat upon its haunches.
Yvette’s stomach dropped. “Don’t!”
The man flung the door. Wood and stone impacted the dog’s skull, and it howled.
“Leave him be!” Yvette rose from her bed, grew dizzy and collapsed upon the mattress. “Don’t hurt him!”
The man with the wooden nose reopened the door. The animal whimpered pitifully, staggered back a step, regained its footing and shook its head.
The dog ambled forward. The door slammed upon its snout, and something cracked.
“Stop!” yelled Yvette. “Stop, stop!”
The man with the wooden nose opened the door. Twisting its head weirdly, as if it were watching the flight of a drunken bumblebee, the dog hobbled back into the room. Blood dripped from its nostril and right ear, and a sliver of bone, white and agleam, jutted from its crooked snout.
The man with the wooden nose walked toward the captive. Atop his moccasins, ornate beads clicked like dice.
The dog collapsed upon its side, rose to its feet, walked in a circle and shook its concussed, dripping head.
One yard from the bed, the man stopped. “Reina. Mirame. Look at me!”
Yvette wiped tears from her eyes and looked up.
“You will give good lovemaking to the clients or I will make Henry suffer very bad.”
“I’ll be good.”
“No mess the bed?”
“I won’t,” confirmed Yvette.
“Bueno.” The man with the wooden nose turned away and strode past the stumbling dog. “Now we can be good friends.”
About the author:
Florida-born New Yorker S. Craig Zahler worked for many years as a cinematographer and a catering chef, while playing heavy metal and creating some strange theater pieces. His debut western novel A Congregation of Jackals was nominated for both the Peacemaker and the Spur awards, and his western screenplay, The Brigands of Rattleborge, garnered him a three-picture deal at Warner Brothers, topped the prestigious Black List and is now moving forward with Park Chan Wook (OldBoy) attached to direct, while Michael Mann (Heat & Collateral) develops his nasty crime script, The Big Stone Grid at Sony Pictures. In 2011, a horror movie that he wrote in college called Asylum Blackout (aka The Incident) was made and picked up by IFC Films after a couple of people fainted at its Toronto premiere.
A drummer, lyricist and songwriter, Zahler continues to make music, and is now finishing his third album of doomy epic metal with his band Realmbuilder, which signed to I Hate Records of Sweden, after his foray in black metal with the project Charnel Valley (whose two albums were released by Paragon Records). He is also navigating preproduction on his directorial debut—a horror western that he wrote called Bone Tomahawk, which will star Kurt Russell, Peter Sarsgaard, Jennifer Carpenter, Richard Jenkins and Timothy Olyphant.
Zahler studies kung-fu and is a longtime fan of animation (hand drawn and stop-motion), heavy metal (all types), soul music, genre books (especially, horror, crime and hard sci-fi), old movies, obese cats and asymmetrical robots. He is absolutely thrilled that Raw Dog Screaming is going to publish his new novel, Wraiths of the Broken Land, which is the most horrific piece he has ever written.
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