Louis L’Amour once said that if a story takes place in a long-ago time west of the Mississippi River, then the story is a Western. It’s a simple definition—one that certainly helps to classify the works of big names such as Grey, Schaefer, McMurtry, and L’Amour himself—but the literary directions taken by some contemporary authors beg for a more detailed category, one in which the presence of the fantastical becomes a necessary element of the storytelling. Colin Winnette’s Haints Stay is one of these stories.
Winnette begins the novel with a pair of brothers who are contract killers without a contract. While this seems, at first, like a traditional place to start a Western, the characterizations quickly diverge. The brothers’ names are Brooke and Sugar, gender neutral/feminine names that stand in stark contrast to the masculine Conaghers, Shanes, and Sacketts of Western lore. Winnette takes the confusion of gender to the next level through the spoken reactions of other male characters in a bathhouse when confronted with a naked Sugar:
“You’ve got the finer parts,” said the longhaired man. “I don’t mean at all to pry or stare. I just haven’t seen a woman’s parts … in years, and … well you don’t expect to come across them in a place like this.”
Brooke immediately comes to his brother’s defense, spurring a brawl. Smartly, Winnette leaves the physical descriptions of Sugar’s body to this sort of dialogue, which keeps the reader wondering both what, exactly, “finer parts” means and how the character’s feminine characteristics will play out later, though readers are aware from this early encounter of Brooke’s defensiveness. With what seems an infinitesimal amount of effort, Winnette uses this gender confusion to his advantage as a source of underlying tension for the remainder of the novel.
Other bits of trope-busting fantasy come into the story when Winnette introduces Bird, a thirteen-year-old boy who appears in the middle of the night with no memory and smooth palms. The boy’s origin is never fully addressed, and this lack of explanation offers the story an element of suspense. Even when Sugar takes Bird to the mystic of the woods, an old, thin man whose camp is void of a fire in the darkness, readers are given no answers. This encounter, mixed with the novel’s title, creates a dark aura of ghostliness. A haint, after all, is a restless spirit who, for one reason or another, refuses to move on. For the remainder of the story, readers are left to wonder if Bird is a physical manifestation of the haints that follow, and haunt, Brooke and Sugar.
If the possibility of one of the novel’s primary characters being a spirit isn’t haunting enough, Winnette introduces cannibals. After learning that Bird has no past from the mystic, Sugar and Brooke desert the boy in the woods, leaving him as feed for a cannibal. Bird is awakened by the sounds of the cannibal’s eager jaws:
Something was eating. In the darkness, there was nothing but the pain in his arm and gut and the slurping and gnawing ringing out as if against stone … His one arm was still mobile and relatively painless. He reached over himself to touch the outer layer of his opposite arm. Bending ached his gut, and touching made the whole arm scream. But he was silent. Tears came, but no sound. Only the sounds of it eating, coming from all around him.
It’s a gruesome description—the kind that Winnette has a keen eye for throughout the story—and it works to symbolize the darker nature of both the novel’s protagonists and humans as a whole.
But Winnette’s Western world still resonates with the trope-filled works of the genre’s greats. Towns, many constructed on the periphery of roasting desert or snow-covered forests, are full of innkeepers, saloons, boardwalks, façade-fronted buildings, sheriffs, and outlaws. Every townsperson wants something, and the tension builds with their accumulation on the page. Even the wilderness outside the towns are personified as natural entities hell-bent on destroying anything in their path:
You could not see the sky. Only the sun and the thick, broken snow, as if it were falling directly from heaven. The wind picked up and moved the snow around and it seemed to be coming directly from the earth, spiraling up and around and holding them there.
This comes after Brooke has wandered through the forest, exhausted and malnourished, trying to find a way back to town. For lovers of the traditional Western, Winnette’s characterization of the harshness of nature helps to situate the novel among the canon of Western literature.
With Haints Stay, Colin Winnette has taken the Western and broadened the scope of the genre. Just as an experienced gunfighter performing a quick-draw, Winnette’s prose effortlessly takes readers on a journey through a familiar landscape populated with unfamiliar characters and situations. The freshness offered in this novel encourages readers to reexamine the consequences of certain actions, human nature, and, perhaps most intriguingly, the ever-expanding lines of one of America’s greatest genres, now just to the west of Western.
Haints Stay, by Colin Winnette. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, June 2015. 222 pages. $16.00, paper.
Ryan Kauffman is a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. His previous work has appeared in The Rumpus, Rathalla Review, and New Plains Review. He enjoys walking the shores of Lake Superior with his trusty canine sidekick, Dr. Watson.