It’s on from page one, and it doesn’t stop until it’s done. On a desert in 1880s New Mexico, a man called Cody and a boy named Willet spy a group of vampires feasting on some nice human barbecue. The vampires, travelling from town to town as a theatre troupe, have taken Cody’s wife; from Willet, they’ve taken his whole family.
We get the backstory bit by bit, but otherwise it’s nonstop action, told on the go; after a fight with the vampires, Cody and Willet try to head off the creatures at a nearby town. Soon enough the troupe shows up again, this time for a show at the local saloon. It’s not exactly Shakespeare these vampires perform, but the crowd does go wild. The final standoff at a ranch caps things off in a gory whirlwind of headshots, decapitations and torn arteries.
It’s not subtle, but hell if it isn’t effective. The action is very well paced – the 250-page novel goes past in a breeze – and there’s a sparkle to the language already familiar from writer Jonathan Janz‘s previous novels; in horror, perhaps only Robert R. McCammon manages to keep a story going with such constant energy. Only at the very end does the action begin to lag, as the aftermath goes on perhaps a few pages too long. But then again the reader might need a breather before returning to the real world, a gentle easing back from the adrenaline-fuelled heights.
Surprisingly, for such an action-packed story, the characters are drawn in some detail as well. Cody is a likeable man, whose already complex relationships with his wife, his father and young Willet get severely tested in the course of the novel, giving it all a strong emotional backbone. Marguerite, a saloonkeeper he meets in the town, comes with some baggage in her relationships as well, and their first meeting is a well executed sequence that happily defies the laymonian school of man-woman relationships, making it resound just that crucial little bit more.
The vampires – needless to say, not the Twilight kind – are bestial, but also eerily human; the western horror genre brings to mind Lance Henriksen‘s group in the movie Near Dark (1987; incidentally scripted by Eric Red, another Samhain author). The vampires aren’t calculating and cool, but temperamental, and when they lose their heads, well, they lose their heads. The familiar mythology does get a rewrite, but it’s nicely explained – the thespian vampires are, after all, professional liars.
The fifth novel by Janz, Dust Devils is plotwise concise and psychologically streamlined; it’s all muscle and heart. The small cast and the straightforward, nearly real-time storyline also help, giving the novel a wonderful immediacy and a fierce, kinetic energy that drives the narrative compulsively forward; for sheer speed, Dust Devils, pardon the pun, truly leaves many others in its dust.