The Crossings by Jack Ketchum. Originally published by Cemetary Dance Publications, June 2003. Approx. 110 pages.
I was recently trying to make a shortlist of potential horror tales to review for Halloween season, and a friend of mine recommended Jack Ketchum. If I remember correctly, I leafed through The Girl Next Door years ago after watching the movie. Going through some of Ketchum's library of works, The Crossings jumped out at me. A taut novella set in the brutal, real Old West? Sounded good. Since it turned out to be more of a revenge tale than a horror story, I figured I'd put the review up now.
To get things rolling, I am going to start by posting the blurb for the story. I know that I don't usually do this, but this is one of the cases where the blurb sets a far better primer than I could ever hope to type up.
"It's the Arizona Territory. The year, 1848. The year the Mexican War ended. Fate and blazing pistols have just thrown together reporter and part-time drunk Marion T. Bell and the very nearly legendary John Charles Hart, mustanger and scout, in the Little Fanny Saloon. Plying the river-trade across the Colorado to the gold fields of California in the north, and war-torn Mexico to the south, the town of Gable's Ferry has sprung up overnight;lacking only a church, a schoolhouse and a jail.
Though some would say that only the jail was needed.
A rough place in a lawless era. About to become a hell of a lot more so one night when Hart, Bell and the easy-going giant Mother Knuckles stumble upon Elena, a fierce, young, badly wounded Mexican woman near the banks of the Colorado. She's naked. She's been bullwhipped, knifed and branded. And she tells them about the kidnap, rape and servitude she and her sister have endured at the hands of las hermanas de lupo, the deadly Valenzura Sisters and their henchman, the deserter Paddy Ryan, at the well-manned slave-camp across the river aptly called Garanta del Diablo; Mouth of the Devil.
It's just three hundred years since Cortez. Only three hundred years since the Old Gods of Mexico were in their full and fearsome flower.
Tezcatlipoca, god of the moon and the night. Tlazolteotl, Eater of Filth. Xipe, Lord of the Flayed.
Blood for rain. Blood for bounty.
For many, like the Valenzura Sisters, they have never died.
And Elena's sister's still there."
Going from this, let's talk about the things that work well, and the elements that, well, don't work so much.
Ketchum has an exciting writing style. Even though this novella is riddled with tropes and predictable scenarios, the setting is a scorching painting of the Old West; and the characters, familiar as they may be, still elicit a sympathetic emotional investment from the reader.
What I am guessing most people expect from Ketchum is brutal, visceral action and shocking sexual situations. On both fronts, prepare to be satisfied. Blood streams forth in rapid streams, and some sexual boundaries are pushed.
And yet, there is something missing here. Like a finely sculpted chocolate Easter Bunny that you find out after biting into it that it is hollow.
As likable as the characters are, there is just as strong a lack of depth about them. The abysmal fathoms of Hart's inner loss is never charted, the testing of Hart's purity against the horrors he sees before him is not truly contrasted, and there is no tempering of Mother Knuckles' inner softness with the potential destructiveness of his physical bearing.
This failing is felt even more so on the side of the villains. In a story where the good guys teeter on the side of being cardboard cutouts, the bad guys should have a chance to run carte blanche with their wicked whims. Not so much here. The parameters set for Paddy Ryan and the Valenzura Sisters leave endless potential for depravity and plain, nasty old evil, but it isn't optimized. Instead, we get some fairly linear action scenes. Well-written ones, yes. But nothing to make us feel as though these are the very real bogeymen that frighten even our adult souls. Compare Paddy Ryan to Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Holden is the face of terror, while Ryan is just a terrifying face. And no, this isn't the last time I'll be comparing The Crossings to Blood Meridian. More on that later.
It is not only the characters that suffer from a lack of depth. There is so much missed potential in other themes as well. I was pretty excited at the proposal of weaving the gods of Old Mexico into the tumultuous New Land. But let's be honest; for the climactic portions, those gods are simply name dropped. There is no intricate weaving of them as essential elements into the narrative. The ceremonies, both sacrificial and sexual, done in their name are more exploitative than haunting. And I say this because earlier on, Elena, the aforementioned escapee, performs an erotically charged ritual; and this scene does in fact capture the spirituality that is sorely missing in the latter portions.
Now, I make a comparison between The Crossings and Blood Meridian before, and I just want to expand on that. I am in no way saying that McCarthy's magnum opus is the sole reference point for brutal Westerns, just the definitive one. Also, I am not a seasoned enough reader of Ketchum's works to dare dictate what is "his" writing style. That's a level of self-important hubris I simply hope I don't have. What I am saying is that looking over the story; the scene building portions are detailed much better when Ketchum writes in a direct, succinct manner. He manages to paint extremely vivid panoramas of not just the place, but also the time. But then, there are some rambling, run-on, pseudo-poetic sentences which just read as experimental toe-dipping in Blood Meridian's pool.
Maybe it's just my interpretation. Believe me, I am fully aware that I am more often wrong than right.
For all the nit-picking I may have done here, trust me, this is a fun, exciting read. I am just pointing out what would have made it great. Take an afternoon or two, and enjoy the hell out of it. But also tell me that from the get-go you couldn't guess who was going to live, and who was going to die, and in what order.
Here's what it is:
A fairly standard revenge tale gets elevated by the prose of a master of writing sex and violence. A must-read if you like stories of the Mean Old West.
Middle of the road here. You have Elena and the cowboys at the titular crossings, and a shadowy image of Old Eva. Nothing bad, but nothing eye-popping either.
Cover Final Score: