304 pages, $14.95
Review by David S. Atkinson
I’m not particularly drawn to westerns, though I will read anything that appears well written, but I was curious when I heard Pamela DiFrancesco’s debut novel (her fiction has appeared in such places as Cezanne’s Carrot, Monkeybicycle, The Carolina Quarterly, and The New Ohio Review so she’s definitely a seasoned writer despite this being a debut) The Devils That Have Come to Stay described as an acid western. What was an acid western? I admit: I was intrigued.
A nameless man tends his saloon and misses his wife, who is off caring for her ailing mother, in the midst of the increasingly sick Gold Rush landscape. A mysterious diseased Indian comes in, and then an equally mysterious gold-toothed stranger looking for the diseased Indian and the gold that the diseased Indian has taken from him. The nameless man decides it is time to rejoin his wife. His wandering through the brutal and often metaphorical western land is The Devils That Have Come to Stay.
Even judged as a pure western, I thought the book was well done. It was more brutal, more horrifying and less romanticized than some I’ve seen:
Finally, I turned towards the camp. In the much lessened light, I saw bodies lying all around the dying fire. Some barely resembled human forms, so defiled were they. The long braids had been chopped from most of their heads. As I walked among the carnage, as my boots slid across the bloody ground, I wondered what these men could have done to deserve this. Even in death they had been shown no mercy. Their bodies had been shown less consideration than slaughtered animals.
And then the book got strange, and I liked it even more:
The Indian studied me, possibly thinking I was about to pull a white man’s weapon from my clothes. When he saw that I had no such intentions, he put his hand into the pouch at his side and resumed his dance. Though he looked like he was swirling in some seed-gathering ceremony, he was scattering. And though what he was scattering was sometimes as small as seeds, it was far more precious by most accounts. It was gold.
The Indian scattered gold for several minutes. As some fell at my feet, I felt the urge to gather it. But as I went to my knees to pick it up, the moist ground had already begun to absorb it like a dry sponge taking in water. Before I could take a single piece, it was swallowed by the earth.
I clawed at the ground, thinking the disappearance was perhaps a trick of the moonlight. But no. While mud clung to my fingers and I unearthed a few small stones, I found that the gold was completely gone. Something could not exist in one moment and be gone the next. I dug frantically. The wet earth shifted beneath the demands of my hands. It shone in the moonlight and sucked at my skin. For a second, a crack appeared in the logic of the night around me. Was this earth, were those trees, was that moon, were the Indian and I of the four elements of this reality or of the ether? I did not feel in any position to answer that question.
I looked up at the Indian, my mouth working to express what I could hardly fathom. I tried to speak of disappearance, but what had happened carried a sickening sense that the utterance could not touch.
—It is best not to gather what’s been stolen from the earth in the first place, he told me.
I had no idea what an acid western was before I started The Devils That Have Come to Stay, so I can’t speak to how good an example of the genre it is, but I do know that I liked it. The world and characters are perhaps a bit realer than is comfortable, and gets even realer when it gets further into the metaphorical than the actual world would normally allow. Regardless, it has a serious pull, an undertow, that rips the reader right along. The Devils That Have Come to Stay is a fascinating book with some riveting writing.
David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K) and The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (EAB Publishing, spring 2014). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.