Blood Riders by Michael P. Spradlin
Review by Dr. Abner Mality
It’s no secret that I sunk my fangs into the world of horror at a very young age. My formula bottle was full of blood and my rattles were made of bones.
However, my appreciation of the Western took much longer to cultivate. When I was a young child, there was still an ungodly profusion of them on TV, so my natural inclination to avoid whatever was part of the mainstream probably kicked into gear. But as time marched on, I gradually began to relate more and more to these austere, manly tales of taciturn gunslingers and their violent world. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly really tipped the scales for me and in the last 10 years, it’s safe to say I’ve become a fan of classic horse operas.
The possibilities for mixtures of horror and Western themes seem natural. The isolation of the West, particularly at night, almost demands thoughts of specters, monsters and uncanny tales. The concept of zombies laying siege to lonely farmhouses can easily find its root in stories of settlers being stalked by silent, predatory Indians. And the horror-Western mash up, while rare, is not totally unknown: I recall an old 50’s movie Curse of the Undead where a vampire outlaw preyed on the weak as well as a spooky episode of The Twilight Zone known as “The Grave”, starring Lee Marvin. And of course, everybody knows that High Plains Drifter is really a ghost story at heart.
So I was kind of intrigued when I saw a book entitled Blood Riders at the local bookstore. The soft blue cover image didn’t impress me, as it looked like something one might find on a sappy “romance adventure”. My image of the book’s hero Jonas Hollister doesn’t at all resemble the shadowy stud on the cover. But the back cover blurb spoke of an interesting combination of Western and horror, so I took a chance on Blood Riders.
Pardners, I can tell you that the book is one hell of an entertaining ride through a bloody Western landscape that’s as familiar as Gunsmoke but wildly different at the same time. Author Michael P. Spradlin is known for teeny horror books like It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies, but Blood Riders is no kid’s horror book. I’d be the last to claim this is Pulitzer Prize material, but it’s got a lot more characterization and cleverness than I ever would have expected and when I finally put the book down, I was genuinely hoping to read the further adventures of Major Hollister and his odd crew of monster hunters.
If you recall the classic TV show The Wild, Wild West as fondly as I do, you’ll recognize some of the feel of that entertaining adventure epic in Blood Riders. Like James West and Artemus Gordon, Jonas Hollister travels the West in a specially tricked out train. Not only is the train capable of greater than normal speed and bristling with weapons, but it has been specifically designed to repel vampires and other creatures of the night. What else would you expect from an iron horse that’s been built with the help of Dr. Van Helsing himself?
Wild, Wild West was in many ways an early steampunk work and there’s a definite steampunk feel here as well. Steampunk has become a kind of tired compendium of clichés lately, but Spradlin wisely keeps those touches to a minimum. Hollister and friends have the use of guns that fire wooden bullets, silver bullets, bullets with holy water in the point and more. There’s even a Gatling gun that fires wooden bullets. There’s also a steam-powered mega-gun called “The Ass-Kicker” that can blow a hole through just about anything, along with “fire shooters” that shoot a stream of liquid fire at enemies. But these weapons (some of which are designed by Oliver Winchester of Winchester ’73 fame) are very rare and specialized. The West of Blood Riders is for the most part the West we know.
Despite all the cool hardware, the novel keeps its focus on the major characters. We get to know and admire Jonas Hollister, Sgt. Chee and the Archaic queen Shaniah…and we also despise Malachi, the renegade vampire and Slater, the ruthless assassin. There are all sorts of little twists and touches to the characters that make them come alive.
The story begins in 1876 in the desolate Wyoming Territories as Captain Jonas Hollister, lately of the Union Army and a Civil War veteran, stumbles on the remains of a mysterious massacre with the rest of his platoon. At first, the feeling is that renegade Indians may have butchered the wagon train of settlers but Hollister knows that Indians would not leave supplies behind or kill horses as was done here. To the shock and horror of Hollister and his men, the supposed victims of the massacre suddenly rise from death and begin attacking the platoon, ripping and tearing with claw and fang. Before his eyes, Hollister’s men are bloodily killed and he himself confronts the giant, white-haired monster leading the slaughter. Thanks to the rising of the sun, Hollister barely survives the attack…the only one who does.
We move ahead to 1880 and the dreadful confines of the Leavenworth Territorial Prison in Kansas. As a reward for losing all his men and then blaming it on blood drinking monsters, Hollister has been sentenced to prison life, which is brutally described. One day he helps a silent young dark-skinned man named Chee fight off an attack by the prison bullies and makes note of Chee’s amazing combat skills. Then he is suddenly called to the office of the prison superintendent, where he meets Mr. Allen Pinkerton…the same man who created the legendary detective agency that bears his name.
It seems that a Colorado mining town has been massacred in the same mysterious fashion as Hollister’s own platoon. The lone survivor has been driven out of his mind and babbles about “blood devils” attacking the town. Maybe Hollister wasn’t hallucinating or out of his mind after all. Pinkerton has an offer for Hollister…as one of the few men alive who has confronted the blood drinking monsters and lived to tell the tale, he will now have a chance at revenge. A chance Hollister jumps at, since the alternative is to go back to breaking rocks at Leavenworth.
It turns out Pinkerton is a member of a secret society called the Brotherhood of Saint Ignatius, a society dedicated to wiping out the hidden supernatural evils of the world. Hollister is now initiated into the society. He has the choice to add one man of his choosing to work with him. Hollister remembers the extraordinary fighting ability and taciturn honesty of Sgt. Chee and chooses him to join the hunt.
From there, Hollister and Chee are introduced to the renowned European expert on the supernatural Dr. Abraham van Helsing, who gives Hollister and Chee not only the benefit of his expertise but knowledge concerning their prey — creatures called Archaics who are closely related to vampires, but not quite the same. For one thing, the sun hurts them but doesn’t destroy them. The Archaics are tougher and more durable than vampires, but lack the more exotic powers of vampires like shape-changing or mind control. Van Helsing believes that renegade Archaics have left their strongholds in the Carpathian Mountains and made their way to the wide open frontiers of the West in search of freedom and human prey.
Hollister and Chee are given the use of their own special train to aid in their hunt. They also get the arsenal of Archaic-killing weapons designed by Oliver Winchester (also a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Ignatius). Along with the train and the weapons comes a strange little man named Monkey Pete, an engineering genius, brilliant cook and jack of all trades. Pete is the go-to guy when Hollister needs some new gun or gizmo whipped up in a hurry. Also along for the ride is Dog, a huge mixed breed mutt that is almost telepathically linked to Chee.
This odd assortment of misfits makes their way to the remote mining town that was the site of the Archaic massacre. Their search brings them into confrontation with a corrupt and greedy U.S. Senator (the only kind I know) named James Declan. Declan owns most of the territory where the murders have taken place and will do anything to suppress knowledge of the massacre, as it will cause settlers to flee the land he’s invested so much in. Declan’s right hand man is a slimy cold-blooded thug called Slater, who takes care of the dirty stuff Declan himself can’t be seen to do.
Actually, the creepiest part of Blood Riders might be the first-person look inside Slater’s reptilian thought processes that Spradlin provides. Slater is a classic Western sociopath. Think of Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and you’d be close. In some ways, Slater is more frightening than the real villain of the book, the Archaic renegade Malachi.
The last key character in our drama is Shaniah, the Queen of the Archaics, who has come to America to hunt down and destroy Malachi. For centuries, the Archaics have withdrawn from humanity and their numbers have dwindled. Despite their powers, they know they will lose any major fight with humanity strictly due to numbers and man’s greater ingenuity. But Malachi, the giant white-haired brute who led the slaughter of Hollister’s men, believes otherwise. He thinks the open plains of America will give him ample opportunity to create a new army of Archaics by “turning” victims into Archaics themselves.
Naturally, Shaniah is a gorgeous knockout despite being several centuries old and equally naturally, she winds up falling for the rugged, resourceful Jonas Hollister, who reminds her of a long dead mortal husband. Despite what I would have thought, the relationship between the two evolves pretty naturally and involves some pretty strenuous Archaic sex, which provides a laugh as an exhausted Hollister can barely keep up. The human-vampire relationship also takes a rather downbeat twist at the end. Despite her admiration for Hollister, Shaniah’s relationship with Sgt. Chee is much more antagonistic. The intuitive and dangerous Chee is actually a “witch man” but doesn’t know it. The witch people and the Archaics are natural enemies and the dynamic between Chee and Shaniah is edgy to say the least.
Spradlin sets these characters up nicely and reveals details about them bit by bit. We have a flashback that shows Hollister’s military genius and also his volatile temper as he literally knocks Gen. George Custer silly after a disastrous civil war battle. Despite Jonas being the true hero of the book, it’s really Chee who steals the show. He’s the Tonto to Hollister’s Lone Ranger and more. He has an odd mixture of wisdom and ignorance that makes him endearing and some of his deadpan exchanges of dialogue with the other characters are pretty humorous.
The book finds Hollister and Company traveling across the West, tracking down the Archaics to their lair in hopes of destroying them for good. To reveal what happens would be cheating, but the second half of Blood Riders explodes into non-stop action and confrontation as all the various forces collide. The book is very much an “action-horror” story and it doesn’t take much effort to imagine Blood Riders as a rip-roaring Hollywood action film. This book is not “psychological” horror in the slightest and it doesn’t rely on the cruelty and torture that underpins most modern horror, although there’s plenty of thrills and spilt blood.
I don’t want to go out on a limb and praise this TOO much, because Blood Riders is not a book that will change your life or cause you to fear putting out the lights at night. What it is, though, is an exciting pulp mixture of time-worn Western tropes, monster stories and steampunk touches that will keep you reading to the end. I have the feeling that author Michael P. Spradlin definitely intends to have us hear more from Major Hollister and crew and I personally will be waiting with anticipation for that day.
Saddle up and grab those garlic cloves, pardner!