Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.
In Great Britain and beyond, ghost stories are seen as something of a winter tradition, and I guess that makes a certain amount of sense. This time of year, there’s precious little light left, and in its absence… why, what else but darkness? Which is itself scary enough for some, but bear with me a bit, because darkness, in turn, suggests silence, and in silence, every sound seems strange—intrusive, even. No wonder we tell tales of things that go bump in the night. No wonder we spin fictions to diminish our fear of the unseen. In a way, being scared makes us feel safer. And so: ghost stories.
Well, thank Santa for counter-programming! I’ve never been one to watch the Queen’s Christmas Message—the alternative address has always been my preference—and much as I adore a good ghost story, reading one this week would be more than a little predictable. So I sought out something a little different: an episodic western about a nun with guns.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? And it is, assuredly, but to begin with, this is a surprisingly bleak serial. Unforgiving, even, as Sister Thomas Josephine—who would forgive the whole of humanity if she had the chance—is unsettled to learn:
There were hard edges to this world I had never imagined; a world of unbound wounds and blood on the earth and shattered teeth, where a man like Muir lived alone.
Muir—Abraham Sea Muir, he says—is the closest thing the Sister has to a constant companion in Nunslinger: Book 1 and beyond, but they aren’t exactly fast friends from the first, when the aforementioned outlaw takes her as his hostage; ostensibly to ensure his own safety, as he’s being hunted by a band of blues commanded by First Lieutenant Theodore F. Carthy, but also because he questions his nemesis’ intentions towards the title’s Bride of Christ.
Initially, the Sister considers Carthy a gentleman, but she’ll be proven dead wrong before long—as regards that and the man Muir’s character. “I’ll do you no harm,” he swears to her. “There’s them below that’d like me dead, wouldn’t scruple on sneaking up in the night to do it neither. Like as not they’ll think twice on that if they might catch a lady up in the fire. Insurance in what you’ll be ‘til I feel safe from them.”
Insurance, sure, but not, I’m sorry to say, a particularly comprehensive policy—not against a turncoat like Carthy, who too soon secures Muir, and in so doing “saves” the Sister. But his heroism—ahem—comes at a cost. He wants Thomas Josephine to show her gratitude, and he won’t take no for an answer neither. The last thing he expects, however, is for the nun to grab a gun.
“You presume to know God’s will, Mr Carthy, but you cannot know mine,” she warns him.
If he still isn’t convinced, he will be when she pulls the trigger…
And with that, Book 1 of Nunslinger is done. It’s an origin story of sorts that couches the central character in the context of an authentic Western—complete with moral quandaries, cultural corruption, harrowing violence and even a spot of syphilis—as opposed to the second-hand inanities I admit I’d imagined encountering such a thing as a Nunslinger in.
As Jared Shurin put it, introducing his interview with the secretive Stark Holborn: “Nunslinger is a classic Western—no Weirdest, no Lovecraftian horrors, no post-apocalyptic metaphors—just a nun, some guns, and all the adventure that the 1860s had to offer.”
To that I’d add: the adventures of said Six-Gun Sister are as thoughtful as they are thrilling. She and the man Muir might have to hightail it across the Sierra Nevadas to mix it up in Mexico, all while fighting for their lives, but the real draw here is her development from the sweet-as-can-be Bride of Christ she is in the beginning to the conflicted criminal—some might say sinner—she becomes.
Initially, Nunslinger was published as a series of digital singles, fast becoming one of the few fictions in recent years to really nail the serial experience, but where before you might have had to wait months to find out whether the bullet that brings Book 1 of Nunslinger to a suitably brutal conclusion hits home, all twelve novellas are now available in a substantial single edition.
In the last edition of the Short Fiction Spotlight I suggested The Sleeper and the Spindle as a terrific gift for your friends and family members this Christmas, and to be sure, you should do that… but give the gift of Nunslinger to yourself.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.