The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is one of the most enduring tales of the American West, having been the subject of countless depictions across various media. The story has even been given the genre treatment, adding magic or science fiction elements in works such as the excellent Territory by Emma Bull. In Mike Resnick’s novel The Buntline Special, the story gets the full on steampunk treatment in what is a light, fun, rollicking read.
Resnick sets his tale in 1881, in an alternate reality in which the U.S. expansion never went west past the Mississippi and in which a young Thomas Edison teamed up with Ned Buntline in Tombstone, Arizona to revolutionize modern science. Together, the two create a number of new inventions, including electricity and artificial limbs.
This is the Tombstone, Arizona where Wyatt Earp lived along with his brothers Morgan and Virgil. This is the Tombstone of Doc Holliday and his on-again, off-again partner, Big Nose Kate. This is the Tombstone of the O.K. Corral. Resnick clearly did his research on the setting and the characters involved in the story, even going so far as to present profiles and give pertinent non-fiction works in the appendix.
Of course the story unfolds differently in Resnick’s alternate reality. Or mostly differently. Edison and Buntline are so important to the U.S. government that they hire Wyatt Earp to help protect them, specifically Edison, who is tasked with figuring out how the Native Americans are keeping the U.S. expansion east of the Mississippi. A prior attempt on Edison’s life failed to kill him, but did take his arm, leaving him with a brass prosthesis. Wyatt gathers support by bringing in his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, as well as Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson, his old companion from Dodge City.
The Edison/Buntline team’s steampunk creations help infuse the setting of the novel. In addition to the aforementioned electricity and prosthetic limbs, Edison and Buntline have been able to create new weapons like gatling pistols and body armor constructed of lightweight brass, turning the fight at the O.K. Corral into a true Weird Western confrontation. They’ve even created mechanical whores who take customers at (Big-Nose) Kate Elder’s establishment.
This is not a tech-only world, though. As mentioned, the Native Americans, primarily leaders Geronimo and Hook-Nose, have been using their mystic techniques to keep the U.S. from expanding. When Bat Masterson kills one of Geronimo’s braves, he is transformed, first into an actual Bat, and later, a vampire. Native magic also resurrects notorious gunman Johnny Ringo, turning him into a zombie.
The Ringo-Holliday rivalry is one of the more fun aspects of the book. Both men are well-educated, both have a reputation for being deadly gunslingers, both want to test themselves against one another. The contrast of the dying Holliday, looking to go out in a blaze of glory, with the dead Ringo, trying to cling to what little life he’s been given back, is a good one.
Resnick wisely sticks closely to Doc Holliday, easily one of the most compelling characters in the tale. His Doc recalls the brilliant portrayal by Val Kilmer in the movie Tombstone. In fact, I would guess that Resnick is a big fan of the film as some of its flavor infuses the novel, and several of Holliday’s better lines re-appear. I found myself imagining some scenes in the book with the actors from Tombstone and found it worked rather well.
Overall, this is a fun book. Resnick has taken the real life characters and events of Tombstone at this time in history and put them in a bucket with steampunk, magic, vampires and zombies, shaking out the resulting mix into The Buntline Special. Fans of Weird Westerns and fans of Tombstone in particular, should seek it out.
Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and weird-western fan. His own weird-western fiction has appeard in The Way of the Wizard and on Podcastle. He’s your huckleberry.