Please note: this review contains mild spoilers. I’ve avoided specific plot details, but I have discussed the nature of the ending.
Golgotha is a quaint little town of horrors. Surviving out on the edge of the Nevada desert in the 1800s, it’s seen a surprising amount of supernatural activity, but it’s still home and haven to its odd assortment of residents. The novel opens on Jim Negrey, a 15-year-old boy on the run from a murder charge. Jim and his faithful horse are about to die out in the desert when they’re saved by Mutt and Clay and taken to the safety of Golgotha. Clay is a medical man with a disturbing amount of interest in dead bodies. Mutt is the town’s deputy sheriff, a Native American Indian with a coyote trickster for a father. The town’s sheriff, Jon Highfather, is rumoured to be either undead or immortal. The mayor, Harry, is a Mormon Elder guarding the magical artefacts of his faith, but he’s struggling to reconcile his religion with his homosexuality. Maude Stapleton, the wife of a wealthy banker, is secretly a warrior assassin for a cult of Lilith.
It seems that these people have all been drawn to Golgotha for a reason. The town sprang up at the foot of the now-abandoned silver mine in Argent Mountain, but what the residents don’t know is that all their paranormal troubles are caused by the colossal monster slumbering in chains beneath the mountain. It’s the Greate Olde Wurm (yeah, I laughed) a monster older than God or death, and if it ever got loose it would destroy the universe.
That threat, of course, is at the heart of the plot – the mine is reopened and the Wurm’s chains are weakened. It begins to wake, infecting the residents of Golgotha with murderous darkness. It’s up to the residents to fight back with the talents and tools at their disposal, not just to save themselves and their town, but to save all of Creation.
But be patient, reader: the novel takes its sweet time building up to the apocalyptic battle of its main plot. There is much to learn first, including the mythological backstory of the Wurm’s imprisonment, and the personal lives of Golgotha’s residents. I’ll address the latter first. Maude is deeply ashamed to have married and turned into a demur, submissive wife; it completely contradicts the teachings of the feminist warrior faith. She forms an unlikely bond with Mutt, who is shunned by the town because of his race, and by his own people because of his coyote heritage. Jim is carrying around his dead father’s glass eye, which happens to be an ancient Chinese artefact with strange powers. He hopes to be able to learn more about it from the Chinese immigrants who live in a self-contained area that goes by the derogatory name of Johnny Town (and is rife with racial clichés), but is initially thwarted because otherwise the story would be a lot shorter. Harry, the Mayor, is having an affair with the man who plays piano at the Johnny Town brothel, while his wife Holly drinks herself into oblivion because her husband let her believe she made him gay. Auggie Schultz, a German storekeeper, is torn between his growing feelings for his good friend Gillian Proctor and his devotion to his (un)dead wife.
The narrative jumps frequently between these characters’ stories and more. It’s a hell of a lot to keep track of, but luckily it’s very easy to do so. Since this is a story of pending apocalypse, it also makes sense to have a lot of characters so that you have some idea of the lives at stake.
But unfortunately having so many POVs is one of the novel’s biggest problems. Many of the characters are interesting, but you can’t spend much time with them before the narrative focuses on someone else. The result is that some characters, like Maude, Jim and pretty much all the Chinese, feel badly neglected. Initially, each chapter or section is written from the perspective of one character, but after a while the POV tends to jump haphazardly between characters or to an omniscient narrator.
The romance between Auggie and Gillian takes up a sizeable portion of the novel but is totally unnecessary, as they have no role to play in fighting against the Wurm. I suspect that they’re there to provide a heartwarming aspect to the plot and to address a religious issue – finding a new partner after the death of a spouse. Other religious issues arise as well. Why, Harry wonders, has God allowed a sodomite to guard his treasures and guide his people? There are many different religions, but which one is true? And of course there’s the age-old conundrum: why does a supposedly loving and omnipotent God allows evil to exist in the world? Religion, or rather, faith, is one of the main themes of the novel, although not in an entirely mainstream way.
Belcher has rewritten Christian mythology to explain the Wurm’s presence on Earth: when God created light, he found monsters living in the darkness. Heaven went to war with the monsters the end of this war, the Wurm was not killed but bound with holy chains and imprisoned on Earth, which was still under construction at the time.
The novel considers the issue of faith of both humans and angels in relation to this version of God who is questionable at best. We know that God is almost certainly a liar. He has not always been in existence as he led humanity and the angels to believe – the Wurm is older than him. He is not omniscient, because he only discovered the Wurm when he created light. It also seems that he is unable to kill it, which would mean that he isn’t omnipotent either. Of course, God doesn’t actually appear on the page; the information about his nature comes from the angels, particularly Lucifer and an angel named Biqa. Overall, God is portrayed as a cruel and arrogant dictator who is not as powerful as he purports to be. Biqa’s theory is that God banished the darkness because he feared it, then went genocidal on the Voidlings because they did not fit into his plan. He suggests that god created the angels and plans “to create an entire universe of doppelgangers to worship Him” because he is afraid of being alone.
So what do the characters, angel and human, think of God in light of the novel’s events? The answer lands, inexplicably, on the side of faith. The general conclusion seems to be that the whole thing was a test and some even wonder, with a ridiculously jovial attitude, what the good Lord will come up with next. However, no one has the slightest shred of evidence to support such a favourable interpretation. Why put all of Creation at stake to test a handful of people living in a small American town at the ass-end of nowhere?
There’s absolutely nothing to dispel Biqa’s earlier impression of God as cowardly and manipulative, and when Lucifer offers his equally unflattering opinions it makes perfect sense within the confines of the narrative. But then again, this isn’t about reason, it’s about reassurance. The residents of Golgotha have “learned long ago to quickly grab hold of any explanation in the daylight that makes it easier to live in the dark”, which in my opinion, explains both the optimism at the end of the novel and the entire phenomenon of religion itself. It’s terrifying to imagine that God cannot kill the Wurm; a more comforting explanation is that He was saving him as a kind of exam paper. Which means that there is a plan, and it seems to be running smoothly, so relax and enjoy the happy ending.
I was just happy to have reached the ending. The novel started out well, I cared for the characters, and I loved the unexplained hints at the weird things that have happened in Golgotha, but Belcher doesn’t really have a handle on this story. For the entire second half I felt like the novel was tossing me all over the place, leaping across POVs, going from a slow pace to dire action, and eventually bringing all its threads together in a way that was chaotic rather than conclusive.
We are told that all religions are true, because it’s belief that gives them their power, rather than deities. In fact, we’re told that gods need people and cannot exist without them. The novel ignores the immense contradictions here. Its own backstory shows that God existed before humanity so although he wants them, he certainly doesn’t need them. And of course there are fundamental contradictions between religions, but there’s less of a need to address this problem because the novel only makes a half-hearted attempt to include non-Christian beliefs. There is a Chinese creation myth told amidst endless Oriental clichés, but after hearing Biqa’s story earlier in the novel, this sounds like a distortion of the more Christian truth. Another creation myth is narrated by a coyote, but all in terms of “the white man’s god”. There is a cult of Lilith that Maude’s grandmother picked up from “the Bantu witch-women” of Africa (there’s that good old blanket term again), but even though this rages against the misogyny of the bible, it still subscribes to the basic mythology. I think the novel could have been a lot stronger if it made a decent attempt to incorporate different belief systems, but it remains unwaveringly Christian at its core.
But hey, it left with enough to discuss for a fairly long review. It was average at best, but most books like this leave me with little to say, so I appreciate those that give me something to think about. Less fussy readers probably won’t be too bothered with the consistency issues I’ve discussed here, and may find this fantasy-horror-western to be a lot of fun. I haven’t really said anything about all the action and horror in the plot, but it suffices to say that there’s plenty of it, although it can get a tad ridiculous. If you’re ok with that sort of thing, then go for it.