By Joe R. Lansdale
Take an orphaned youngster, a legendary gunfighter’s mummified remains, an ill-tempered travelling showman, a strong-willed black man, and a wrestling ape and what more could you ask for in a novel? Cannibalistic zombies on a haunted zeppelin controlled by a demonic inter-stellar squid? OK, sure who wouldn’t want that, but The Magic Wagon was only Lansdale’s first novel so give him a break.
Buster is the orphaned youngster, he is an adolescent growing up fast (as so many of Lansdale’s protagonists do). He accompanies Billy Bob, a trick shooter with a mean streak, and Albert, a black man with a mysterious and deep connection to Billy Bob. While Billy Bob amazes the crowd with quick-draw displays and Albert peddles patent “medicine”, the show also features Wild Bill Hickok’s mummified body (his hinged arms are rigged to hold his pistols at the ready) and Rot Toe the Wrestling Chimpanzee.
Touring the South as a travelling show isn’t much of a life, but it’s what this odd lot has. As the pressure mounts on them they visit Mud Flats, an East Texas town where the forces, psychological and spiritual that swirl around them will come to a head.
The Magic Wagon is an intersection of Lansdale themes. It is a Western, and a tale of the supernatural. It is a work of modern fiction that looks to old Dime Novels as a template for fiction and for the way men fictionalize themselves. In Lansdale’s world nothing is ever as it seems, lives are lived on a stage where masculinity and racial hatred are donned like costumes and worn until they can no longer be removed. The piney woods of East Texas are a nightmare landscape where outcasts roam and dark forces are waiting to prey on the unwary.
If the Western is dead, it’s mutant offspring still roams the world like a drifting serial killer. Works like Blood Meridian¸ Little Big Man, and The Magic Wagon let the maniacs out of the cages and into our psyches.