We’ve talked here before about book hangovers, dear readers, where a book lingers for so long in your mind and heart that it’s difficult to find another book to suit. Today, we discuss one of our staff member’s experiences with just such a book: Unbury Carol, by Josh Malerman.
I grew up with westerns. My godfather, one of the most quietly enthusiastic readers I have ever known, would spend hours in used bookstores and library book sales, searching out pulp Western novels by Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone, delighting in the now-forgotten stories that had exclamation points in the title (Montana! or perhaps it was something less specific, like Ghostown!), or the pulp novels like the kind shown at left (via Rough Edges). My father grew up with the television show Gunsmoke and still watched re-runs with delight. But even though I was surrounded by westerns, and could appreciate the love that others had for them, I struggled to find the enduring appeal in them myself.. This was largely because all the westerns to which I was exposed featured white men fulfilling traditionally white, masculine roles, enforcing a white, masculine code of justice, and having all-male, almost exclusively all-white adventures. Though the women, like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, were strong, smart, and thoroughly capable, their screen time and their storylines were limited, especially in comparison to the men of Dodge. They hardly ever left the saloon, and when they did, it was always on the arm of a man who would shoo them away to safety if there was a concern that harm might befall them.
So I was personally delighted to discover that a new generation of writers have begun re-imagining ‘the Wild West’ as a place of diversity, of feminism, and of magic. The first such series for me was Laura Anne Gilman’s The Devil’s West series, which focuses on a young woman’s coming of age in an American West population by monsters, ghosts, and living embodiments of Native American myths that features characters who are both wise and vulnerable, and a setting that is positively immersive. And it was while casting around for another such book to enjoy that I discovered Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol. Malerman’s novel The Bird Box was a genuinely unsettling, sensory delight, so I knew this story would be memorable. However, I wasn’t really prepared for how long this book, marketed as dark re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, would linger with me.
The book itself is set, to quote Malerman, “somewhere between a western novel and not”, with elements of supernatural horror and steampunk mixed in with the some of the more familiar aspects of the Western genre, including a long pursuit across a literal and emotional wasteland. Though it is an exceptionally white West, without Native American/Indians, Black folk, or Spanish-speaking characters, its fictional-ish setting redeems what it lacks in historical accuracy.
The heroine of this novel, the titular Carol, is precisely the kind of person that traditional westerns would tend to overlook: though her age is not specifically mentioned, she is no young ingenue. Carol is a self-assured married woman with her own fortune and relationships outside of her marriage. Indeed, when we meet her, she is mourning the loss of her closest friend, John Bowie, who has recently died of a mysterious and much-feared fever. Bowie, in addition to being one of the most intriguing secondary characters in recent memory, is also one of the only three people who knew the truth of her inexplicable condition–that she falls into a death-like comas during which she is completely paralyzed, but totally mentally alert. The only other people who know are her husband Dwight, who married her only for her money, and her own true love, the outlaw James Moxie, who abandoned Carol when she revealed her secret. Although she tries to share the secret with her maid, Carol tumbles into unconsciousness before she can fully explain the condition that has shaped her life.
As Carol falls into her next coma, we learn that her husband Dwight has a plan to steal her fortune by convincing the community that she is dead, and burying her alive. But Moxie also gets word of Dwight’s plan, thanks to the quick thinking of Carol’s maid, and he sets out to right the wrong that he committed against Carol so many years ago by facing up to her condition and rescuing her. At the same time, Moxie himself is being pursued by madman named Smoke, who is hellbent on foiling his plan, destroying Moxie’s formidable reputation, and unleashing hell in the process. And it is here that the fairytale parallels begin to fall apart, and the real imagination of Malerman’s story shines through, as these two men chase each other down a lonesome trail that is at once dreamlike in its fancifulness and tangibly real in its old-west scenery.
As Jennifer Weiner so wisely pointed out in an editorial for The New York Times last summer, it seems that readers “can’t get away from the man-boy as hero…If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups, whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.” On the surface, it seems that Unbury Carol is yet another rehashing of this idea, with immature men controlling the narrative for their own purposes; Dwight’s murder plot is a combination of cowardness and narcissism; Moxie’s whole life (and Carol’s, as well) has been shaped by his inability to face up to reality; the chillingly maniacal Smoke, is driven by a hatred for Moxie and his own insatiable addictions. Yet, even as this familiar premise plays out, Malerman subverts his own premise by letting us see Carol’s struggles in her coma to save herself, and to remember all her mother’s advice from her childhood. Moreover, Carol’s maid is the only person advocating for Carol throughout the book; and Moxie spends the story confronting his own demonic, destructive guilt, being forced to grow up and become worthy of the woman he still loves. Beneath the familiar fictional facade, this is a book that shows women working for the benefit of themselves and other women, and men who are forced to confront their own immaturity and selfishness. The final revelation about Carol’s fate was a pitch-perfect ending to this modern western, combining actual historical oddities and a powerful legacy of feminine agency. From beginning to end, this book subverted expectations, from the character’s agency in the main plot to the truth of James Moxie’s magical reputation. In challenging genre and gender assumptions, Malerman’s restructured, imaginative western is an unsettling, surprising, and spell-binding success.