The Magpie Coffin: Wile E. Young
Reviewed By Ben Walker
It’s gritty, it’s weird and there’s a bit of blood in it; it’s my nan’s left eye after a day at the beach. No, wait, it’s The Magpie Coffin by Wile E Young, the first in what I hope is a long line of supernatural-tinged westerns from Death’s Head Press. I mean, just look at the cover art – doesn’t it just get your mouse finger itching, ready to pull the trigger on a quickfire purchase?
Billing itself as a splatter Western, this definitely has all the trappings of a good old-fashioned trip to the Wild West, filled to the brim with saloons, scalpings, drinking, cussing, coyotes, gunfights, snakes, dynamite…you name it and it’s in there. Caught in the middle of all this is our anti-hero, Salem Covington. A collector of sorts, he roams the land gathering up beliefs and artefacts which he uses to track down and overcome those he has sworn vengeance on. His teacher, a shaman called Dead Bear, is dead, killed by a band of men who Salem pursues down some weird and dangerous paths.
This has the same kind of unflinching, bloody and sometimes way over the top violence readers of Garth Ennis’ Preacher might be familiar with, specifically those flashbacks and one-shots devoted to the Saint of Killers. That mean old bastard whipped a bloody trail through the West with no thirst for much except blood at the end of his sabre, or holes blown through eyesockets with his trusty guns. Salem is just as mean, driven, relentless and bloodthirsty. Tellingly, each mention of his gun is delivered with a capital “G”. The Gun is his god, and he worships what it does, delighting in the pain it helps him inflict.
Despite his overwhelming reliance on (and love for) violence, Salem also dabbles in shamanic practices. He’s a man who respects those who occupied the Americas first, but the spells and magics he performs usually have violent, imaginative twists to them, especially one involving a spider and a fly. This reminded me a little of Alan Dean Foster’s Mad Amos stories, only where those short tales gave you a weird Wild West alongside some wry humour, The Magpie Coffin is a far darker offering. Most chapters end with a deep scowl rather than a knowing wink, and by the final third you’re as deep into the raw, bloody violence as Salem and Jake are. Some of Salem’s methods for tracking down and dealing with his prey are truly barbaric, with some wince-worthy scenes of torture, or men being left to die in morbidly inventive ways. It’s not all one-sided though, as his targets try to get the better of him. There’s one scene in particular where all seems lost that had me clutching my chest nervously, as did the aftermath which includes some painful descriptions of weird frontier surgery.
Despite all of Salem’s monstrous behaviour, and his belief that he’s some invulnerable symbol of vengeance, he does show a bit of heart along the way. This is mostly thanks to his young companion named Jake who he hires early on. They have the occasional heart-to-heart, and they manage to expose a few cracks in Salem’s emotional armour. Those moments are nice, but I started out expecting a far weirder supernatural buddy story, seeing as Salem tows around a coffin on his wagon, housing his teacher’s corpse. It’s still a great story with Jake in tow, just not as bizarre as the first few chapters suggest it might be.
Minor quibbles aside, this book is so thick with authentic atmosphere that I kept checking my nails for dirt as I turned the pages. And as grimy and dark as things get, the final few lines manage to give you that knowing wink after all, with an ending that asks “hey friend, you want to hear some more, don’t you?” to which I say yes. Yes I do.
The Magpie Coffin
The year is 1875 and outlaw Salem Covington has spent the last twenty years collecting stories, possessions, and lives. Nicknamed “The Black Magpie” for his exploits during the war, Salem has carved a bloody trail across the western territories. Informed that his mentor, Comanche shaman Dead Bear, has been murdered. Salem vows vengeance on the perpetrators. Enlisting the help of an army scout and preserving the body of his mentor in a specially made coffin, he sets out in pursuit. But the choices of Salem’s past that earned him the moniker “Black Magpie” are riding hard behind him and the only weapon that can kill him might not be as far away as he thinks.
The Magpie Coffin is an unrelenting tale of revenge, with precise brutality and extreme violence.
Ben got a taste for terror after sneaking downstairs to watch The Thing from behind the sofa at age 9. He’s a big fan of extreme & bizarre horror and well as more psychological frights, and most things in between. When he’s not reading, he’s writing, and when he’s not writing he’s on twitter @BensNotWriting or reviewing books on his YouTube channel, BLURB.