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Spotlight on: Zeppelins West by Joe R. Lansdale

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Zeppelins West by Joe R. Lansdale Joe R. Lansdale, Zeppelins West

As a fan of Joe R. Lansdale, I look forward to each new release with relish. Sometimes, however, these releases are difficult for a man of modest means to acquire, especially when several of Lansdale's works are published by small press publisher Subterranean Press. For a standard hardback release (especially the unsigned second edition), Zeppelins West has a rather high price tag: $40 retail (Amazon and other sellers often offer a discount, but even that is usually not enough).

So imagine my surprise when I came across this signed limited edition in the library! I couldn't have been more excited, literarily speaking. Zeppelins West turns out to be a bit of a mixed bag, however, as his attempts to replicate some of the more out-there fiction of his personal favorite Philip Jose Farmer (also seen in "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down," as published in Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories, which contains some similar elements).

Zeppelins West stars Buffalo Bill Cody, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, and Annie Oakley -- sort of. They're nothing like you remember them, with Hickok and Oakley in a relationship and Cody's decapitated head being kept alive in a jar filled with "activated [pig] urine" (shades of Donovan's Brain).

Also featured are the Tin Man, Frankenstein's Monster, and Captain "Bemo" of the "Naughty Lass," all gathered on the island of Doctor "Momo," a vivisectionist with grand aspirations. (As the doctor's name suggests, the main plot is unabashedly borrowed from H.G. Wells' classic novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau.) His creations include a literate seal named Ned (such a fascinating character, Lansdale made him the hero of the sequel, Flaming London), a hunchback named Jack, several monkey men and other beast men, and his one "success," Catherine, a lovely lass made from a local species of wildcat. All of these characters are vividly drawn by artist Mark A. Nelson in individual portraits that spice the text.

The adventures all these folks get involved in would take far too long to describe, and I'm not sure I could make much sense out of it all, anyway. But, following Wells' outline, Lansdale lets his pen run free, being faithful to history and literature, or veering wildly from them, as his story requires. My favorite part was the conversation between the Tin Man and Frankenstein's monster; their revisionist histories are an example of how Lansdale's imagination can soar when focused. The rest of Zeppelins West is a hodgepodge of terrific storytelling, sensitive characterization, and borrowed storylines that, as often as not, seem to not quite reach the heights of which Lansdale is capable.

I got lucky in being able to read Zeppelins West, but I can only recommend it to fans of the "champion mojo storyteller." It is not a place to start for the newcomer, though it gives a look at the author's ability to span genres without losing his own special touch that keeps his readers coming back time and time again.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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