The Curse of Jacob Tracy
Holly Messinger
(Thomas Dunne Books)
Jacob Tracy just wants to be a regular old 19th Century gun-slinger, leading wagon trains from St. Louis westward. But his spiritual abilities get in the way.

He is invited to the house of the rich Sabine Fairweather. She wants him to go to Sikeston to pick up a gee-gaw for her, but while Fairweather is out of the room, a "semi-transparent" girl appears.

    Trace could see the brass gleam of the doorknob through her chest. She smiled at him, but her features were vague and blurred, as if he were seeing her through a warped pane of glass. She clearly had no idea she was dead.

This show-stopper occurs in the first few pages of The Curse of Jacob Tracy, and it just goes downhill from there. But it is a helluva good ride.

We get blue monsters attacking a train, trying to eat people (they are hungry; they're called keung-si and they're Chinese in origin, which may make them as dangerous to some loyal Americans as the Maoists). There is too a young girl made crazed, murdering her kindly family . . . and a charming if sullen Mormon lad who, after he gets stung by the Russian spirit-master, turns on Trace, tries to bite him. How would you like it if someone you were fond of suddenly starts slavering and going for your jugular?

These monsters are everywhere, if you know how to spot them, which means that as we trail Trace going about in the west territories in 1880, we never know who is going to sprout pointy teeth and develop blood-lust and strange lupine features, turn all furry, try to rip your throat out. It might be some cowpoke back in the corral.

The worst of it is that Jacob Tracy is not at all fond of his supernatural ability. He just wants to be a cowpoke and ride around on a horse and deliver Baptists to the Oregon territory. He distinctly dislikes the "vibes" when he gets into a place with too many unresolved dead folks. And he is deeply offended by the fact that this Fairweather woman recognises his psychic ability on their very first meeting.

Even worse, she has a plan for him, which involves the brutish Russian, Mereck, who has the ability to turn the innocent young into ravening demons, pop-up demons who would just as soon take a swipe at your throat with their claws as wish you well.

Fortunately, Trace is tough --- has a sidekick Boz who is a big black non-nonsense kind of guy. Fortunately, only once in the whole book does Trace himself develop a overdose of bloodlust and try to murder his pal of so many years.

Think about it. The Curse is about life itself. How many times have we woken up to find that a buddy of ours of so many years has suddenly gone bonkers (booze, drugs, love) and is a menace to the rest of us? Messinger may be writing about loup-garous, demons, and lycanthropes, but who are we to say that this isn't the real stuff of life? It may be disconcerting when a person you've treasured for years as your soul-mate suddenly tries to bite you on the neck with brand new fangs, but that's the breaks, no? The message here is you can't trust anyone, even your oldest and most loving. Which gives a certain pith to living.

The best part of the book is spot-on dead center with a seance in which the supposed medium doesn't know beans about calling up the dead until Tracy appears and does all his work for him. It's funny because we know that he's a straight-shooter, and it's only because he feels sorry for the dead woman they are trying to reach (he's the only one that can see her) so he falls in with what would have otherwise been a vague and fake contact with the dead.

There is one other interesting element here. If we are to be left with a message from The Curse of Jacob Tracy it is that when they come for you --- I mean, when the heavies come calling --- if you have that built-in shield called "self-confidence" you may be able to survive. It's an old message, but in the hands of this author, it gets retransmitted . . . and packs a wallop. As does the book, reminding us that the old tales (cowboy, sidekick, going off into the dying sun) can come alive when they are shot through with a new set. Cowboys as ghostbusters, complete with, among others, demons, imps, werewolfs and blue monsters straight from China.

--- Angela Wisdom