Dirk Van Sickle | Avon Books | 1979 | 254 pages
More a brooding rumination on death and the western landscape than a traditional horror story, Montana Gothic establishes an overall mood of loneliness and despair through a fractured series of vignettes, featuring an interrelated group of characters from the Old to the New West.
In the opening segment, Deke Morgan, a young medical school drop out, arrives in the backwater town of Citadel, Montana, to take over a run-down mortuary business. Unable to rise beyond a social pariah in the eyes of the local townspeople, Deke eventually discovers the grotesque history of his predecessor that seems to forever hold him in the role of outsider. Only the affections of Mary Lynn Crandall, daughter of a wealthy land-owning family to whom he offers piano lessons, provides Deke with an optimism that his fate could change. The resulting tragedy arrives not through any villainous actions, but from the fatal touch of a deadly, indifferent landscape.
Fifty years later, Boss James, former fiancée of Mary Lynn Crandall, is now an old man reduced to tending a small winter herd of cattle. Tasked with overseeing a late-season calf birth, Boss James is assisted by Anthony, a young man from the East Coast who drifted out west, unsuccessfully looking for a job fighting forest fires. Things go horrifically wrong as Boss James heads out alone in the sub-zero temperatures to help birth the calf, leading him to reflect back upon Mary Lynn and the events that have driven his life to this seemingly predestined point.
In perhaps the most traditionally gothic segment, Edward Rochester attempts to preserve the faded family legacy set down by his father, Ellery, through the manipulation of his son. Ellery the younger, resentful of his role in the mausoleum-like family estate, exhibits a casual cruelty to his younger sister Melinda, a mentally deficient innocent who seems incapable of escaping childhood. All circumstances change when Melinda meets an attractive stranger—Anthony, having left the frozen cattle shack and now trying to find a purpose in life following his heartbreaking failures—in the meadow near the river. Her grandfather’s hand-me-down Navy Colt revolver ultimately determines the family’s future destiny.
The final segment introduces Mavis Herman, an antiquated throwback to the gun-slinging days of the Old West. With his leather vest, chaps studded with silver coins, and Navy Colt revolver holstered at his side, he rides into the modern town like an outlaw from a former age, tying his horse to the parking meter in front of the local saloon. Relying on his firearm and moral compass to guide him, Mavis suffers the mockery of a new generation of Westerners who view him as little more than a costumed clown. Running afoul of the law, he attempts to clear his name with a gesture derived from a code of honor that probably didn’t exist in the past, and as he learns, definitely doesn’t exist in the present.
Some of the passages that serve as bridges between main story segments tend towards florid poetry, such as Deke’s time nursing an injured eagle. However, the macabre storytelling and doomed protagonists, who are seemingly locked in their deterministic landscapes, elevate these downbeat and occasionally ghoulish series of linked tales. Just know that Montana Gothic is a slow and meditative affair, a far cry from the chilling haunts promised in the blurb pages—but with such great cover art, who really cares?