Kicking off in early 2020 with Wile E. Young’s Magpie Coffin, Deaths Head Press’s Splatter Western series has become something of a phenomenon in indie horror circles. Boasting a top array of talent (Kristopher Triana, Christine Morgan and Kenzie Jennings to name just a few), a slew of beautiful and distinctive hand-painted covers by Justin T. Coons, and with some truly A-List creators, such as Bryan Smith, Chandler Morrison and Hailey Piper with books in the pipeline, the future is looking bright for this well-loved and prolific series.
With the recent release of ‘They Built a Gallows For You and Me’ by Cody Higgins, marking the tenth release, I have tasked myself with the impossible; ranking the Splatter Westerns! No mean feat, given how consistently excellent the line has been over the last year but, after a lot of agonizing and some fond reminiscing, here is my personal countdown to that coveted top spot.
10 – A Savage Breed by Patrick C Harrison (Book Six)
It is a testament to the quality of the Splatter Western series that this is the book selected for last place because it is a solid, entertaining book with a fun premise. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find fault with it. The characters are well developed and memorable and feature one of my favourites of all ten books. Liz Sawyer is a scene-stealer of the highest order and she screams ‘sequel’, to me at least. The three separate plot threads all dovetail nicely at the end and the book’s big bad is a memorable one, and something left menacingly vague throughout large portions of the book, which makes them all the more threatening. The only real reason ‘A Savage Breed’ is so far down the list is for the crime of being a consistently good book, but not one that sticks in the memory as much as the other entries in the series.
9 – They Built a Gallows For You and Me (Book Ten)
Credit where credit is due, Death’s Head Press do not seem content to rest on their laurels where the success of this series is concerned, as Book Ten is an altogether different reading experience to the nine books that precede it.
The prose in ‘They Built a Gallows For You and Me’ is poetic, beautifully and carefully assembled, giving the whole book a wistful, dreamlike quality that contrasts wonderfully with the tough life and tragic outcome for its central characters. The lyrical style may result in some sacrifice to the flow of the story and the forward momentum and the pacing, but it is a joy to read nonetheless and a challenging and welcome change of pace for the Splatter Westerns.
8 – Shadow of the Vulture (Book Nine)
Book nine is perhaps the most grounded, and certainly the most serious of all the Splatter Western series. That’s not to say that it’s a straight Western by any means, nor does it shy away from the splatter or the supernatural. The difference is that these elements are treated as part of the wider story, and not the main event, and the focus is squarely on how these events impact the characters.
It is a very well researched and immersive book, weaving a tale of multiple women linked by a desire for revenge. The violence you’ve come to expect is present, but less gleeful and more unpleasant, keeping the overall tone more downbeat. It’s a very engaging book, but in very different ways to a lot of what’s gone before it. The only real reason this one doesn’t rank higher is that, at only 110 pages, I would have liked to spend a lot more time with some of these characters, especially considering they are some of the most intriguing and relatable of the series to date.
7 – Hunger on the Chisholm Trail (Book Two)
A lot of the Splatter Westerns are a great deal of fun, but this is a line of horror books first and foremost, and we want to be scared on occasion as well. ‘Hunger on the Chisholm Trail’ manages to tick that particular box better than most, boasting a menacing protagonist and some genuinely unsettling and creepy scenes.
Part of the success it manages in being an effective horror book is the slow build-up to the big set-piece that closes out the book. The creatures stalking our lead characters are a constant presence throughout, but rarely let themselves known until things go big in scale and spectacle in the closing chapters. A memorable and often frightening entry.
6 – Dust (Book Three)
I expect this to be a controversial placement, as I often see Dust cited as a favourite of a lot of fans of the series, and it’s hard to deny that the melding of cosmic horror and western is a pretty inspired mixing of genres.
Dust feels incredibly cinematic (if they ever make movies of these books, this one gets my vote for the first entry), largely thanks to the brisk pacing and quotable characters, leaving a vivid impression, easy to imagine up on the big screen. It’s a fun and genuinely unique mash-up of horror, sci-fi and even a bit of fantasy thrown in for good measure, and a thoroughly entertaining read.
5 – Starving Zoe (Book Five)
This seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ book amongst fans of the series, and I certainly fall into the former camp. Of all ten books released to date, this one feels the most focused and personal, with pretty much two main characters and little in the way of a supporting cast.
Told in the first person and boasting, by far, the vilest and most deplorable protagonist of the Splatter Westerns to date, Starving Zoe is a challenging read in ways the other entries are not. It’s more grounded (despite the supernatural premise) and deals with a lot of unpleasant topics and themes, but maintaining a dark humour throughout and boasting a surprisingly melancholy undercurrent and, dare I say it, some heart as well.
My review of this book called it ‘the most messed up love story I have ever read’ and I think that summarises my thoughts on ‘Starving Zoe’ pretty well.
4 – The Night Silver River Run Red (Book Four)
Christine Morgan (the Queen of Extreme Horror) and the Splatter Western seems like a match made in heaven and, even under the weight of expectation for what she is known to be capable of, The Night Silver River Run Red still manages to impress.
Featuring cults, samurai, blind gunslingers, warlocks and cannibals, there isn’t a single second wasted in this book. It gets going almost from page one and doesn’t let up. Fast-paced is an understatement, switching between characters almost every chapter, and some of the set pieces prove to be the most gruesome and memorable the series has to offer.
The whole book is absolute chaos, with dozens of characters embroiled in ridiculously over the top goings-on, and the whole thing works wonderfully. It’s one of the most unashamedly all-out entertaining books that the Splatter Western series has to offer, and that is saying a great deal.
3 – Red Station (Book Seven)
After a lot of grand scale and high concept entries, it was refreshing to read something smaller scale. Set almost entirely in the confined spaces of a train carriage, followed by a remote boarding house, Red Station offers a lot of room for its characters to develop and for the tension to build gradually, until a wild and explosive second half.
When things kick into high gear all at once and without warning, things get bloody, and the time spent with the characters in the first half pays off in a big way, as it makes things so much more personal for the reader, and we truly care what happens to the cast we’ve followed up to this point.
Boasting perhaps the best character of the ten books to date, Clyde Northway is an absolute bad-ass. Smart, resourceful, witty and dangerous, she practically demands a follow-up book. Consider me on board if that ever comes to pass.
2 – The Magpie Coffin by Wile E. Young (Book One)
It genuinely pains me not to put this book right there in the top spot. It’s damn near flawless! Featuring a protagonist that you love to hate and an incredible amount of world-building achieved in a brisk 210 pages, there is a lot of story packed into such a short tome. With an unlikeable protagonist must come even more despicable villains, and boy does this book deliver there! The Magpie Coffin wears the ‘Splatter’ part of the title like a badge of honour. I was thrilled to hear that there is a sequel in the works because the characters and lore are so rich and well developed that I’d happily read as many books set in this world as the author cares to put out.
The Magpie Coffin set an incredibly high bar as the first out of the gate in the Splatter Western series and it is easy to see why this line has been such a roaring success when you open with a book this good.
1 – The Thirteenth Koyote by Kristopher Triana (Book Eight)
This was a clear winner for me. It is, hands down, the craziest, most violent, and over-the-top book I have ever read. Its massive scope and sprawling plot, featuring a massive cast of characters are so completely immersive that even at a whopping 502 pages, it is nigh on impossible to put this book down. In my previous review I described it as ‘like Evil Dead, dialed up to eleven’ but, honestly, this book makes the Sam Raimi classic seem like a restrained slow burn in comparison. The madness is all well and good, but the characters are what makes the book. Likable, memorable, diverse, and three-dimensional, it is simply a joy spending time with them all.
The Thirteenth Koyote is gleefully enjoyable and dementedly inventive and pure, non-stop entertainment. While I’m sure that the Splatter Western series has a very bright future indeed, this is going to be a tough one to beat.
How about you readers? What’s your favourite Splatter Western? Any books that you think are way too far down the list? Any upcoming releases you’re particularly looking forward to? Come let us know over at Twitter (@horroroasis @rickreadshorror). We’re always ready to talk horror westerns!
GET YOUR COPIES OF THE SPLATTER WESTERN SERIES OVER AT THE DEATHS HEAD PRESS WEBSITE!
Limited number of stitch sewn bound chapbooks of an unpublished story from legend Joe R. Lansdale featuring the Reverend Jedidiah Mercer.
Mercer is back, and this time, faces an evil as old as the hills.
SPLATTER WESTERN COVER GALLERY BY ARTIST JUSTIN T. COONS
Richard Martin started reading horror books at a young age, starting with R L Stine’s ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Point Horror’ series. He traumatized himself at the age of twelve when he read Stephen King’s ‘IT’, and never looked back. He is currently based in the UK, where he lives with his partner and an inappropriate amount of books.