Top positive review
If you enjoy westerns or horror or just good writing, you'll love this book
Reviewed in the United States on December 4, 2020
I’ve been silent on here for a minute, busy with my teaching load or my own PhD studies or any of the other million things that 2020 has wrought. But when it came time for Kenzie Jennings’s entry in Death’s Head Press’s Splatter Western series, I knew I had to write something for it. Her debut novel, Reception, demonstrated a keen ear and eye for characterization and married (get it?!?!?) its horrific elements to the characters’ own trauma to give the whole piece a compelling thematic depth that I found fresh and exciting. Jennings’s horror grows organically out of her characters’ struggles, external manifestations of some internal conflict that is either self-imposed or socially obligated; because of this, her work is always honest and actually about something other than the blood and guts. I’m happy to say that Red Station continues that trend.
On the surface we have the story of stagecoach passengers taking refuge at a station house, only to slowly realize that things are a bit stranger than they expected. Before you know it, the body count stacks up and the whole thing descends into a hellscape of death and carnage. If I were doing the pitch thing, I’d call this a mix of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight with a dash of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes if you swapped out the mutant radiation for religious fanaticism, all filtered through a decidedly feminist lens that in some ways recalls Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (in terms of its punk spirit, not necessarily in terms of its more problematic forced sterilization and mass murder message). Our protagonist here is “Clyde Northway, soon to be Darrow,” on her way to marry a man she’s only communicated with through letters and is not without his own social stigma (11). We’re introduced to her through the eyes of a doctor, who immediately notices what she’s wearing: “She wore red well, a deep, rich red much like garnet” (5). The doctor thinks “she was out of her element there, it seemed. A lady of refined society, one more inclined to find herself at ease at evening soirees” (5). And if the red dress weren’t enough for the doctor to initially dismiss Clyde as just another woman “out of her element,” she’s also reading (gasp!) A Vindication of the Rights of Women (double gasp!), one of the earliest articulations of a feminist philosophy (written by Mary Wollstonecraft, mother to Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame — horror connections!).
It’s a testament to Jennings’s economy of storytelling that, within the first few pages, she not only introduces the key symbols of the novel (the color red and the dress), but also that she tethers these symbols to their thematic referents, in this case feminism and its fight for equality and the rights over a woman’s body and mind. Because as the novel develops, Clyde becomes increasingly interesting and dynamic, always an active and powerful agent in the storytelling (but she still gets knocked out a few times, which adds a layer of believability and reality to her), and as she fights and claws and scrapes her way through one obstacle after another, the red dress holds constant. It’s definitely not an accident that, apart from the prologue, the novel opens and closes with the red dress, from the first line (quoted above) to the last, where (spoilers!) Clyde emerges from the night’s wreckage “looking, quite frankly, like the devil in what was once a really lovely red dress” (135). Red Station, in many ways, is about a woman navigating through and within the strictures imposed by an oppressive system, but instead of being smothered she upends the rules and makes her own way; in other words, Clyde can wear the dress and slaughter the crazies at the same time. (this idea of liberation-through-strictures is reinforced through an arm brace that Clyde wears, but I’ll let you discover that surprise on your own)
And there’s still so much more going on! But I don’t want to deep dive into everything, although there’s also an intriguing angle in here about the perils of manifest destiny and westward expansion and the associated hubris, but I digress. With Red Station, Jennings continues to foreground a level of critical and political engagement that can sometimes go missing in a lot of titles. While I love indie horror, I’ve noticed a trend where authors pursue the grotesque for its own sake, without addressing seriously any of the ramifications of their violence, either in their worlds or for their characters. And I get it, not every book needs to be some philosophical meditation, and I don’t want to give the impression that Red Station isn’t a blast of gory fun, because it is. But the point is you can do both, as Jennings does here. And, to don my literary snob hat, you should do both. If you want your book to last, then it better be about more than its plot. Or you better be a stylistic wizard. In one of the more gross scenes in the book, one of our villains masturbates all over the pulpy remains of his victim’s skull. It’s an act of depravity motivated by a lust for sex and violence, and it’s ultimately a vapid display. I’ll just say, as with a lot in this book, there might be more going on here.
Red Station is another strong showing for Jennings. Her characterizations are always compelling and sharply observed. Every action, every word, reveals some interior motivation, such that at times reading it can feel like experiencing a game in tactics, which is exactly how our characters understand each social interaction and how they evaluate threats. There are people to love and people to hate, but they’re all recognizable and intriguing in their own way. I loved my time with this book, and if you enjoy westerns or horror or just good writing, you will too.