Author: S. Craig Zahler
Mood: If you love extremely violent stories that would probably make good movies and don’t care if the writing is any good as long as there’s gore.
In the fifteen years I worked at a public library, I never liked reading books recommended by someone I know. Patrons were always returning books and being like, “You have to read this, you’ll LOVE it!” When you have no choice but to show up behind that same counter every day, there’s this immense pressure to like the book (or lie), and if you don’t, you feel like you’ve offended the person – even though they didn’t write it.
It’s even worse now that I have a review site. I actually want recommendations, because I want to read and watch as many Westerns as possible! But there’s a catch. Now when I dislike a book, I share that opinion with the entire world.
I feel like this nasty, wart-encrusted little troll, hunched under a bridge, cackling as I tear up the pages of someone’s beloved book.
But I’m not a troll. I’m a journalist, and I have to speak the truth. So here’s my truth: A Congregation of Jackals should not have got past a f*cking editor.
A Congregation of Jackals is the first novel by Craig S. Zahler, the man who gave us the horror-Western Bone Tomahawk that is still haunting my brain to this day.
It begins with a pair of swarthy, sun-bronzed twins entering a saloon. You can’t miss that they are sun-bronzed, because it says this THREE times on the first page.
“Sun-bronzed” is usually an expression reserved for sexy people, like the Sweet Valley Twins or shirtless cowboys. Yet Zahler further describes his twins’ faces as “cracked”, with oily hair and cruel eyes, and you’re a bit confused about his earnest use of this phrasing so it’s not a great start.
The twins harass a pair of newlyweds for no apparent reason, other than a brutality flex by Zahler. They force the man to bite off part of his wife’s pinky finger while she tearfully describes her first lover’s dick.
Cut to a stoic rancher named Oswell. He receives a telegram summoning him to Montana Territory for a wedding, and it’s heavily inferred that his dark past will be at the ceremony. Oswell’s brother, Godfrey, and a former acquaintance, Dicky, have received the same request.
The men meet up on a train, at which point Oswell, certain of his impending death, pens a letter to his wife confessing his nefarious past. This shit is much, much worse than your standard bank robberies and horse thievery, and are described in detail (by a man who can’t spell ‘rendezvous’ or ‘Orientals’ yet has no trouble with ‘Pennsylvania’ and writes with a remarkably eloquent narrative voice.) All those despicable deeds were spearheaded by a sadistic man named Quinlan, who is now out for revenge against those who left him for dead all those years ago.
Most of the book is borrowing from High Noon’s plot device of building tension by dragging out the wait for a big bad to arrive. A group of outlaws protecting a town from even worse outlaws is also a familiar Western tale. But this is Zahler country. Everybody gets bloodied in creatively vicious ways (like naked women shaved bald with crowns nailed to their heads), and lots of people die horrible deaths.
A Congregation of Jackals is gratuitously violent, but no more so than any splatter gore horror or Tarantino movie out there. And therein lies the problem: this book feels like it was written with only the big screen in mind, where you would rely on actors to bring characters to life between the dialogue through subtle actions and facial expressions – and you’d never see the painfully repetitive descriptors.
Oh, the descriptors. Here’s a sampling of words that Zahler REALLY f*cking liked, and used countless times on both sides of the same page:
- The petite woman
- The titan
- Grotesque – as in Bone Tomahawk, Zahler revels in deformities
He’s one of those authors who refuses to use he said/she said in dialogue, and instead insists on describing the person speaking every single time. But he flip-flops between sesquipedalian words that cause the reader to stumble (like what I just did with ‘sesquipedalian’), or repetitive descriptors like the ones above.
Then you get other technical issues that, again, should have been addressed by an editor.
And at least twice in the book the men have long conversations atop galloping horses. The volume of the hoofbeats is described several times as “thundering” or sounding like hail, yet here of all places Zahler goes with “asked” and “replied” – like these men are able to have casual dialogue the entire time they are galloping four or five abreast. Don’t write scenes on horseback if you have only experienced horseback action in movies!
Back to the second big issue with A Congregation of Jackals: the characters. Engaging characters and strong dialogue would have done wonders for this story. But almost all of the characters are thin at best, and Zahler cannot write women at all.
Why does the rich widow need to act like a bitch, then turn out to be charming and kind, then immediately switch to sexy? Like, why would she go on a date with the sheriff and then wear a revealing outfit to his daughter’s wedding party? WHY?
- Oswell is given a brief reformed family man story so I’d call him the most likable of the gang, but he isn’t actually likable
- I think we’re supposed to feel bad for Godfrey because he’s overweight and his wife left him for being a murderer, he doesn’t get more than that
- Dicky’s personality is extremely repulsive and NOBODY needed so much description of his “seed”
- The sheriff is a good old guy and a real hero, but he’s still not written well enough that you can root for him
- The young bride-to-be is kind of annoying, only really focused on getting to boink on her wedding night
- Her fiancé gets more heartfelt story with his coydogs than his woman; all I took away from it was that he was big and less murder-y than his cohorts
- There’s an old and seemingly clairvoyant crone who is trotted out to add creep factor to a dance scene, but nothing comes of her creepiness OR her clairvoyance so it was all for show
- You get these two hilarious old marshals that are thoroughly enjoyable, but they only get one key scene (with disemboweled horses straight out of The Walking Dead) and are otherwise awkwardly relegated to comic relief like wise-cracking sidekicks in a Disney movie
- Then there’s this blind old man who lives at the hotel and has the best-written scene in the entire book, which is seriously fascinating and gives you hope for Zahler’s future novels, and at the end of the book you learn the outcome of every single insignificant character but not his?!?!
There are also some stereotypes in here, like a tribe of whooping Indigenous cannibals (another theme Zahler seems to love), a simpering Black man, and coarse Asian people. The Black and Asian characters come across like Zahler was writing in the voice of white people at the time, which I get. The cannibals having deformed prisoners feels like showing off Zahler’s willingness to “go there” more than anything else.
I wasn’t offended by the violence in A Congregation of Jackals, in case you’re thinking I’m some delicate flower who just can’t handle violence. I like horror, I like action, it’s all great – when it’s done well. I absolutely LOVED The Winter Family, which is similarly violent. The difference is that The Winter Family is filled with rich writing and deep characters.
The Old West was indeed brutal AF. Death was everywhere. White people did become deranged killers. Cannibalism was practiced. Most things in this book are plausible, and there IS a place for gratuitously violent horror stories. Writing is art, and art is subjective.
I did find the last third of this book to be a total page-turner. Even though you aren’t really invested in the characters, you just have to know who is going to survive. But my final verdict is that A Congregation of Jackals contributes nothing to the genre except 266 pages that I was so f*cking happy to finally put down.
And seriously, WHAT THE F*CK HAPPENED TO THE OLD MAN IN THE HOTEL?