The Dead of Winter is the début novel by American author Lee Collins, and billed as “True Grit meets True Blood,” it’s a paranormal western action mystery (I know right!?). It pits the investigating gunfighters Cora and her husband Ben Oglesby against vampires and other supernatural enemies in the silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado.
Certainly a novel concept
It seems so tempting these days to slap the suffix “-punk” onto every genre that already exists. It seems especially common when we get to the Old West: that desire to start gluing gears onto every flat surface and making giant robotic contraptions to menace everybody. So it’s actually quite refreshing to see a western that is just a western. Sure, there might be vampires and hellhounds alongside the more usual bandits and sheriffs, but the supernatural elements are a lot easier to wrap your head around when you aren’t also trying to deal with technology that is both a lot more complicated and too advanced for the era. There’s just something visceral and wonderful about matching a Colt .45 against a vampire.
Collins’ integration of the supernatural elements of the story is also fabulously well done. The reason legends like these exist in the first place is that scientific understanding of the past wasn’t advanced enough to explain what we’ve later discovered to be natural phenomena. What we now deride as foolish parochial superstition was perfectly reasonable and logical to people of earlier times. It was not a large suspension of disbelief at all to go from, “People didn’t know any better, so they thought a dog with some phosphorous on it was a hellhound” to, “It’s actually a hellhound, it’s just nobody hangs around or lives long enough to know that’s what it is.”
Introducing Cora Oglesby
The protagonist of this tale is one Cora Oglesby, a sass-talking, whisky-drinking, ass-kicking hunter. In this age of fantasy, covers featuring lower back tattoos, bare midriffs, and increasingly awkward poses, Cora’s appearance on the cover of The Dead of Winter was a breath of fresh air. Cowboy boots, Buffalo leather trench-coat, checkered flannel shirt, rifle slung over one shoulder, and rosary clenched in her other fist. Fantastic stuff. She is actually dressed for the work she plans to do, which she does with skill and determination because this is what she’s chosen to do.
I’m brought to mind of some combination of all three of the main characters from the Western classic The Good, The Bad and the Ugly alongside Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From Sergio Leone, Cora gets Clint Eastwood’s dedication to doing the right thing. She is religious, and she feels ridding the world of the forces of darkness is doing God’s work. We also see some of Lee Van Cleef’s interest in the pay. Cora really doesn’t care too much about the people in the town of Leadville. She’s offering her help for a fair price, and if they don’t want to listen to her, they can go hang. From Eli Wallach, she picks up a certain element of the outlaw. She’s a vigilante, and the law doesn’t much appreciate her swooping into town, guns blazing, causing trouble. From Whedon’s vampire slayer, aside from the vampire slaying, you start to get the feeling that Cora has been called to this work. It feels like it’s some degree of destiny for her since she seems to find herself involved in the supernatural whether she wants to or not.
Why should you read this book?
I really enjoyed this book. Collins has a really gritty style that makes it feel like a western. The dialogue is in the vernacular, but not so far that you have trouble understanding it. The pacing is absolutely perfect, and it doesn’t miss a beat throughout. The action is definitely straight out of the Spaghetti Westerns. All of these great pause moments where the characters eye each other across the square, then a sudden flurry of action, and the dust settles. Brilliant.
If westerns have ever seemed too boring or dull for you, this is about as unlike that as you can get while still wearing spurs on your boots. If you enjoy westerns but want to dabble in fantasy, you won’t be disappointed either.