THE PHANTOM OF WITCH'S TREE by Mark  Lunde

THE PHANTOM OF WITCH'S TREE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this debut novel, two killers find themselves on a collision course in the last days of the Wild West—but the march of progress will not halt supernatural forces from intervening in their conflict.

In 1912, the American frontier has been declared settled and the culture of the Wild West is in decline. One of its last bastions is Widow Tree, a town whose overweight and wealthy leaders buck the comforts of electricity and the railroad in order to attract tourists to the brothels and casinos of an ever-disappearing Old West. Matt Hargreaves is a rich, heavy-drinking wastrel who was appointed a deputy of Widow Tree only because his father was the marshal. When a shootout in Canada ends with the death of a 12-year-old girl, Matt dives deeper into his excesses and is unknowingly targeted by an omniscient, mystical force in the form of a revenge-seeking, uniformed Mountie, Cpl. Justin Augustus. Meanwhile, while working a prison-transport job, the baby-faced psychopath Jody Simms finds Widow Tree and the surrounding area prime ground for indulging his lowest instincts, including rape, focusing on the frontier’s newest resident, Rachel Adler. Rachel is a complicated figure, posh, educated, and looking to carve out some part of the American West she has experienced in books for herself. Yet she, too, is haunted by portents of a demon—Simms—out to get her. Lunde’s novel is a down-and-dirty Western, opening with a penis boil and featuring plenty of viscera and corpses, the rampant and unvarnished racism of the period, and the brilliant, scatological ugliness one would expect from game-heavy diets and no indoor plumbing. Characters are venal and crass, more John Falstaff than John Wayne, and the tale uses this to great effect, sometimes disgusting readers with Simms’ sick actions or entertaining them with a closed-window farting contest between Matt and his father. Though principally a Western, the story’s fantastical flourishes are reminiscent of the early gothic novel, with inexplicable darkness, visions of an ethereal world, haunted Mounties with dire warnings, and a singing phallus. While these facets all have big impacts on the plot, they are rarely explained to the audience. This will likely cause consternation in some readers, but it largely adds to the book’s eerie sense of adventure and mystery.

Equal parts haunting and humorous; literally a warts-and-all gunslinger story.

Pub Date: July 24th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-949135-05-3
Page count: 616pp
Publisher: Untreed Reads Publishing
Program: Kirkus Indie
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