Thanks to Golden Age Hollywood film-makers like John Ford and Howard Hawks, the iconography of the western is firmly etched in our cultural consciousness. Who isn't familiar with spurs, six-shooters, and gun fights at high noon? Similarly, the popular works of Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis have made certain tropes of fantasy fiction equally familiar; a door opening to another world may be the most commonly used and recognized motif in the genre. First-time novelist Tim Pratt, whose stock has risen with the inclusion of his story "Hart & Boot" in the prestigious The Best American Short Stories 2005 anthology, employs well-known elements from both of these time-honored genres in The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. Unfortunately, its 399 pages also lumber under their clichés.
Marzi, a Generation Y college drop-out, fills her evenings working as a coffee-shop manager, while creating a comic book called The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl in the daytime. Unbeknownst to her, she's also the gatekeeper of a door in the coffeehouse storage room, and an accomplice to the creation of the world behind the door—a phantasmagorical Old West, one that coincidentally resembles the fictional world of her comic-book. Trapped behind the door is a primal evil called the Outlaw, a kind of supernatural cowboy waiting to wreak havoc on Santa Cruz.
Rangergirl is most effective early on, when the Outlaw is shrouded in mystery, as Pratt introduces a series of strange occurrences and characters. There's the Renfield-like madman Beej, who provides bizarre comic relief by offering an altar of garbage to the Outlaw. There's the obsessive-compulsive Denis, whose clinical coldness provides horrific moments, such as allowing his girlfriend Jane to be buried alive in a mudslide. Yet most memorable is the mud-ghost of Jane, who ironically and hilariously haunts the clean-freak Denis. For the first 200 pages, these characters infuse Rangergirl with whimsy and spontaneity.
Then the Outlaw invades Santa Cruz and draws Marzi into the alternate-world Old West. For the last 200 pages, Rangergirl preoccupies itself with fulfilling genre conventions. The Outlaw rounds up a band of villains to cause destruction in Santa Cruz, while Marzi searches for a mysterious oracle in the Old West. The plot unfolds in deference to one, obvious finale: a showdown at high noon.
Pratt's story could benefit from following the credo of H.P. Lovecraft, who stated that "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Early on, the Outlaw exists effectively off the page as a ghostly, menacing presence. When he takes center stage, he's revealed as a B-movie caricature, complete with purple dialogue. Here's the Outlaw addressing Marzi in one of their first encounters:
"Oh, darlin'. You're too green to hurt me. I'm a grizzled old hand, and you're so wet behind the ears your shoulders are damp from the dripping. No, if I thought you could hurt me, I wouldn't be here. I'd be holed up in the hills somewhere. I've been watching you, though, peering out of the keyhole, through the walls." (p. 223)
The over-the-top characterization of the Outlaw eclipses any fear or mystery evoked by Rangergirl's early moments. I'm still unsure whether we're supposed to fear this villain? Laugh at him? Or just admire his use of Old West lingo?
In its early scenes, Rangergirl promises to be a unique western-fantasy hybrid; one that I hoped would sit below Stephen King's Dark Tower cycle on my bookshelf. Instead, its potential is completely undermined by an adherence to genre conventions. Conventions exist for a reason—they're structures from which to hang stories—but in Rangergirl, the stock elements feel contrived. The depiction of the alternate world is uninspired, appearing like a dilapidated back-lot of a Clint Eastwood movie, while the repartee between the hero and villain is cloying, resembling dialogue from a direct-to-video release.
Pratt is certainly better than this, as demonstrated by his first collection Little Gods, where he showed a propensity to upend genre conventions. There are glimpses of similar playfulness in Rangergirl, but in the end they are overshadowed by clichés.
Kelly Shaw has lived in Milwaukee, WI, for his entire life, so he reads a lot of books and watches a lot of movies. Sometimes he tries to write.
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