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Eric Red's (The Hitcher) Branded! Revenge Horror-Western - (Book Review)

Eric Red's (The Hitcher) Branded! Revenge Horror-Western - (Book Review)
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PLOT: After being physically and emotionally scarred as a child, bounty hunter Joe Noose joins two Federal Marshalls to track down an elderly mysterious serial killer notorious for scarring his victims with an upside-down Q branding iron.

REVIEW: Arrow In The Head’s avuncular Eric Red is back with the brazen and blistering Branded (ORDER IT HERE), book three in the ongoing Joe Noose western anthological saga. As always, Red channels his preternatural understanding of cinematic storytelling to deliver a vividly explosive and visually arresting tale of frontier revenge set in late 19th-century Wyoming. Peppered with unpredictable twists and equally compelling tangential vignettes, not to mention subtle character shading that paints a full picture by the end, the exciting episodic track-and-hunt format of the novel keep the pages flying at such a torrid clip that paper-cut prevention of some kind may be in order. Seriously, Red continues to flex his imaginative muscle on the page in the way he’s done on the big screen for the past four decades. By drawing the ancient serial killer as an antagonistic allegory for the personification of death itself, Branded is perhaps Red’s most poetically soulful story to date. With its sonorous style and a bloody barrage of badass action, Branded is a must-read for everyone who frequents this site when it shoots onto shelves on January 26, 2021.

A captivating prologue explains Joe Noose’s scarified past, literally and figuratively. The man who would grow up to be one of the most feared and grizzled bounty hunters in the westward expansion of the late 1800s, Joe Noose, recalls the time as he child when his skin was scalded by a cryptic assailant with long white hair, who branded him with an iron-hot upside-down Q insignia before vanishing into thin air like an ancient apparition. Twenty-one years later, in December of 1886, Noose ditches his post as a small-town Idaho sheriff to joins forces with Bess Sugarland and Emmet Ford, two U.S. Marshalls out to capture – dead or alive – the same sadistic serial killer who branded Noose two-decades prior. With only a few clues to go by – the old white-haired killer has three fingers on one hand and a busted branding iron – Joe, Bess, and Emmet traverse the rugged American frontier in the frigid cold in dogged search for the spookily vaporous entity who continues to terrorize the American western landscapes with brutally baleful inclemency.

One of the things I love about this story is the contradictory nature of Joe Noose. Here’s a man who radiates gruff masculinity on the outside but recognizes and grapples with the tender vulnerability of his past on the inside, and his constant negotiation between the two directly informs his actions in the most believable ways as the story unfolds. While he speaks in drips and drabs about his past and concomitant feelings to Bess and Emmet, it is Joe’s inner-battle to avenge his and conquer his biggest fear – the barbarous brander - while still confronting his childhood trauma and frangible psyche that makes the subtext of the story so consistently compelling. Without this fascinating thematic heft, the more outwardly thrilling moments of the bloody bang-smoke, shoot-‘em-up-gunfire of the novel would ring much hollower. Red writes with pulsing prose that is neither too fallow nor too florid, finding a fast-flowing sweet-spot studded by memorably melodious dialogue that allows you to envision various scenarios in your head as akin to the proscenium of a cinema screen. It has the laconicism of Leonne and the punch of Peckinpah with an ambiguous dash of Eastwood’s spectral western-mysteries. Red does it again!

In addition to the inspired premise of the first known serial killer marauding the wild west, I loved how the mythical murderer is depicted as the manifestation of death itself. Red allows elegiac passages of the ghastly ethereal figure with his long white flowing hair riding through nature like an angel of death. Or worse yet, it’s as if the frigid and unforgiving wintertime itself were a wicked personification of nature’s inherent evil. Between these profound poetic motifs come a series of ever-compelling sidesteps and detours in which Noose, while keeping the killer on his mind, is confronted with a skein of additional obstacles. A nightmare sequence in which he is tormented by the Brander is expertly written, as is a scenario in which a former bounty of Joe’s musters the courage to mount a cowardly sneak attack, only to learn the lethal lesson of what Noose is capable of. These ancillary sidebars are just as fun and fascinating as the primary plot, and serve to shade the characters en route to a fearsome, ferocious, and highly satisfying finale.

With Branded winding effortlessly into the next Joe Noose western, The Crimson Trail (Pre-Order Here), Eric Red once again demonstrates what a masterful storyteller he continues to be 40 years after breaking into the film business. With his successful second act as a novelist, he’s just as adroit as ever at painting visceral imagery that is married to compelling characters through concise prose and credible dialogue. Branded is skillfully told, absorbingly brutal, and an absolute must-read for fans of any and everything Arrow in the Head. Salute the great Eric Red!

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