First impressions of books can often be hit or miss. In the case of Hunting Monsters Is My Business – The Mordecai Slate Stories by John M. Whalen, my first impressions that it would be a fun quick read were spot on. As an avid fan of steampunk and any other kind of science fiction set in the late nineteenth century, this weird west journey fell right into my wheelhouse. You can check out an excerpt here.
This book is an omnibus of sorts. It follows the ongoing tales of protagonist Mordecai Slate, a gun slinging hero for hire with a specialty in killing scary things. Each chapter is a separate adventure that flows nicely as Slate seemingly travels from town to town. But the book is also a compilation of individual stories stemming from various publishing outlets including other anthologies as well as Whalen’s own blog site. However, the book’s namesake story Hunting Monsters Is My Business is an original work that can only be found in this publication.
The character Mordecai Slate can best be described as an enigma. Whalen points out in the introduction how he conceived his hero from a vast number of inspirations and why the reader will may never learn about his mysterious past. This works to perfection. For young future writers who think a defined character backstory is essential to character development, they will discover otherwise by reading Hunting Monsters. This is a perfect example of how creative storytelling can establish character while leaving a bit of mystery untold. After all, curiosity can be much more enticing than knowing the truth when handled correctly.
The one sure character trait readers are provided without any ambiguity is the imagery of Mordecai Slate. The cover art (image shown) by Laura Givens shows Slate astride a scarred horse with burning buildings under hellish fiery sky in the background. Whalen admits to comparing Slates likeness to the intimidating actor Lee Van Cleef of spaghetti western fame, and Givens’ reflection of that image is done to perfection. There’s a reason Lee Van Cleef was chosen to play the bad guy in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and readers of Hunting Monsters will have no doubts about the character’s strength.
There are nine short stories in all, varying in length. On the Camino Real is barely two pages while Hunting Monsters Is My Business is a novella spanning almost a third of the book. The other works include the titles The Last Payday of the Killibrew Mine, Samurai Blade, Little China Rancho Diablo, The Shape of a Cage, Undead Empire, Gog!, and The Man Who Had No Soul.
Though fans of weird westerns will assuredly clamber for these adventures, Whalen’s ability to mix the stoic lingo found in the old pulp dime novels with the literary artistry of classic genre fiction writers is what separates him from all the others.
Here is a random example from Little China on how to provide a lot of information in a brief portion of a conversation.
“The word is Raymundo Corvallo was fixin’ to marry that saloon gal,” he said.
“Saloon gal?” Booker said sharply. “You mean Crystal? She ain’t no saloon gal, mister. She owns the Golden Parrott. Won it on a full house, fair and square.”
Slate glanced over at him. “You sound like you got an interest in her yourself.”
“That’s none of your business.”
“From what I’ve heard, Don Esteban didn’t approve of his son being with her.”
“He doesn’t like ‘saloon girls,’” Booker said.
In just 83 words, readers see how Slate is not effected by the emotions of those around him, a trait of nonchalance probably common in someone who faces the excitement of monster hunting on a daily basis. We also see how Slate meticulously uses his words to entice Booker into providing information he might not have divulged otherwise. In the conversation, we discover Deputy Sheriff Booker had feelings for Crystal Vaughn as he took offense when Slate referred to her as a saloon gal, yet he himself used the derogatory term expressing Don Esteban Corvallo’s disappointed in his own son Raymundo’s love interest in the lowly “saloon girl.” It is apparent that Booker accepts Crystal’s sorted past and now proudly sees her as a shrewd business woman.
In the short story format, this type of character building is essential in keeping the narrative flowing while providing enough info to the reader to make it all plausible.
It should also be noted that the monsters in Hunting Monsters Is My Business – The Mordecai Slate Stories are scary, but not always in the horrific beast kind of way. Sometimes the real monsters are the men who create the beasts through greed and hubris while some of the ghastly beings are merely the victims put in monstrous situations where violence is their only source of retribution. You will read about ghosts, mutations and a few classic transformations, but the inevitable target of the formidable Slate is not always a harry beast.
Fans of steampunk and weird westerns filled with interesting characters and creative monsters are sure to enjoy these imaginative tales. Hunting Monsters Is My Business – The Mordecai Slate Stories is an action packed collection reminiscent to the pulp classic dime store novels with a morbid twist of supernatural mystery and intrigue. For more on Mordecai Slate, you might want to check out Whalen’s novel Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto. And if you still can’t get enough of John M. Whalen, you can also find his work as a contributor for Amazing Stories here.
A few more by John M. Whalen