Stagecoach Mary, by Jess Nevins
(Full disclosure: Jess Nevins has “Tuckerized” me – which is to say, named a character after me – in this book, so if you’re expecting solid literary criticism you should go talk to an academic he’s annoyed. However, I’m being as candid as my massive ego permits.)
Stagecoach Mary is a Weird Western pulp-style collection set in an alternate Montana in the 1890s. Consisting of eight short stories and encompassing elements of horror, westerns, steampunk and modern sensibilities regarding such things as race and gender; it’s a delightful read in the summer and, I suspect, will be even more fun come Halloween.
If you’re unfamiliar with the historical “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, well, you’re in for a treat. In our reality, she was the first African-American woman star route mail carrier in the United States. Tough, stubborn, independent and successful, she was a remarkable woman. Actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony in which he said, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38,” which sounds like high praise in any era.
Jess doesn’t shy away from the racial elements of the time – you really can’t, writing about such a woman – but to my mind he handles it with grace. Alongside Mary’s own racial issues, the Blackfoot tribe and the trials of the Chinese in the American West are all presented with heroes of their own. (I will confess that Cool Hand Liú is, perhaps, one of my new favorite names.)
He writes each of the stories through the eyes of a young white American man, however, never trying to put himself into the shoes of the other characters; and while the narrator and the sheriff are perhaps remarkable for their tolerance in this time, if you can accept ghosts and river serpents you should be able to accept softer edges in a social milieu.
For the most part, the stories read with the quick action and tense excitement one would expect from this style. As in any clever collection, the two strongest stories serve as bookends. “The Hitchhiker” is a perhaps classic ghost story, but one with enough twists and turns, not to mention exciting scenes, to make one forget the urban legend at its core. And in “Stagecoach Mary’s Last Ride-Out,” a half-dozen more legends of the fictional Wild West make an appearance to fight alongside our erstwhile heroine, culminating in a shootout described with all the breathless intensity of the OK Corral.
Other solid stories include “Omahksoyisksiksina,” about those creatures the Blackfoot tribe may have left behind and to whom they eventually return; “The Phantom Airship of ’98,” featuring members of several tribes attempting to right a historically tragic wrong; and the aforementioned “Cool Hand Liú,” in which an alternate Paladin has his guns, and has certainly travelled. Each of these were well-crafted and enjoyable tales, with characters deeper than your average pulp and creatures described with feverish intensity.
The two weak stories, to my mind, are “Stagecoach Mary Outwits the Devil” and “The Madness That Overtook Cascade.” While “Outwits” is certainly well-written, and I enjoyed Jess’ Devil immensely, I was still unable to decouple it from its well-known inspiration, which you will recognize within a few pages.
My shrug at “The Madness” is, in a word, maddening, because I’m a huge fan of the work I believe inspired this one – HP Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories – and I believe I simultaneously wished for more mythic and doomed poetry while being unable to envision the story’s events taking place in a stolid American plains town.
That being said, Jess Nevins has an excellent grasp of the way people speak. His dialogue throughout gave me different tones and voices in the ear, and his descriptions of Cascade and its surroundings made me feel as though I was there myself. Unsurprisingly, given his reference works, Jess also knows how the pulp heart beats, and makes copious use of that knowledge.
I found Stagecoach Mary to be a wonderful collection of stories by a writer who is solidly in his wheelhouse, about a woman who deserves to be more well-known and regarded in the modern day. Pick it up and review it for yourself, if you’ve the time and inclination – you won’t regret it for a moment.