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The Haunted Mesa Tried My Patience


I have a shameful admission: before The Haunted Mesa I had never read a Louis L'Amour book. Let's amend that, actually: I'd never finished reading a Louis L'Amour.

Okay, last correction: I had never read all of a Louis L'Amour book. I'd started a few. I finished them all, in that I decided I was done reading them, but never before had I read all the pages of one of his books.

I thought maybe The Haunted Mesa would be different. It's a Weird Western from 1987, so it's more recent than some of the others I've come across, and it's by one of the most prolific Western writers in the whole genre. Surely it will be compelling, and exciting, and I'll enjoy it! It won't suffer from the same issues I found in other books, certainly.

Okay, well, no. Somehow this story--which features an archaeological site with a portal to another dimension--manages to be far too dense, with overlapping layers of samey characters, while also being pretty dull.



How does Mr. L'Amour manage this, you ask? Here is an example: The skeptic main character's visit to the titular mesa is preceded by his reading quite a lot of a journal, describing another man's visit to the mesa. But the voice is all the same as our the first man, so it's an unecessary bit of tedium that only serves to prolong the story.

This story appears on Weird Western lists as an unassailable entry in the genre. But I can't help but questions its presence. Weird Western as a genre can take different approaches to its extraordinary elements. It can treat them like anomalies; intrusions that upset the regular workings of the world and bring new trouble to the characters. Another approach is to depict them as a part of the world of the story, expected and (at least somewhat) predictable. In either case, the magic has some kind of outside origin, a source that operates in opposition to what the reader experiences.

Rather than a "True" Weird Western (though I doubt such a category could exist, and I'm definitely not the man to set the boundaries), this feels more like something else: A story in which some good-ol'-boys discover that Native Americans are magic, and always have been. It's not an alternate history or a twisted version of our own world, it's just "Savage magic," and that doesn't feel like it fits the bill.

Instead, The Haunted Mesa exhibits the same sort of backward fascination with Native Americans that many Western stories cling to. Rather than casting America's indigenous people as the intelligent and clever problem-solvers that they were, L'Amour ascribes to them magical powers without any explanation beyond some sort of tribal wisdom. But it's not the same way that other Weird Westerns use magic and the supernatural.

There's a distinction, in feeling if nowhere else. I don't think an addendum is needed, but I won't recommend The Haunted Mesa for a study of the Weird Western genre.

Or even for a Western. I feel like a bit of a heretic, but I think I'm okay with continuing my L'Amour streak. And what does a cowboy do, if not rebel against the existing constraints, and strive to expand into some unknown territory?

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