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Skull Walker by Anthony Izzo2.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIndie writer Anthony Izzo’s Skull Walker is an enjoyably pulpy splatter-western novella that doesn’t do much unexpected with its tale of an undead outlaw, but certainly goes about its business with bloody gusto.

We travel back to 1876 Colorado, where the bandit McCarty brothers — named Billy and Clinton, though I’m unsure if there was any humorous intent there or not — are wreaking havoc among homesteaders around the little frontier town of Harlow. Not exactly the sharpest barbs on the fence, the boys have managed, with the aid of a snake oil salesman’s magic necklace, to resurrect their eldest brother Elias, shot down by Sheriff Greer, as a Skull Walker. Basically a leveled-up zombie, retaining his intelligence and meanness while adding near indestructibility and super-strength, Elias now leads his hapless no-account brothers on a new reign of terror. The goal is to lure Sheriff Greer out so Elias can exact his revenge.

This being a splatter western, Izzo makes it clear his intended audience for all this are the gorehounds, who will derive much amusement from lovingly detailed descriptions of men getting their heads blown off. Izzo’s writing is basic, without pretentions to style, but it’s tidy, and shows he has well absorbed his pulp influences, where the point is just to get to the point. A good editor might have helped him buff out rough edges in his prose, but that’s indie publishing for you.

The story gains interest halfway through with the addition to the cast of Ella and Isabel Duncan, young women orphaned as children. They have their own vendetta against the McCartys to settle, and they join reluctant deputy Ben Burnham in tracking down the killers. Meanwhile, Elias is feeling “called” to a region of the countryside where it seems other Skull Walkers like himself await. I liked the notion that this tale is set in an alternate American frontier where all kinds of cryptids are just out there.

If only Izzo had done more actual character work than we get. We end up liking Ben and especially Ella and Isabel well enough that the climactic showdown feels inexplicably rushed, and the denouement in particular feels dashed off. It would have been nice to have a little more quality time with the sisters, before seeing them ride off into the sunset in search of more monsters to slay.