In Molly Tanzer’s excellent debut novel Vermilion, Elouise ‘Lou’ Merriweather works the dead of San Francisco: she’s a psychopomp, helping souls find eternal rest. When Chinese immigrants begin vanishing, she sets off to discover what happened to them, only to discover a larger plot that places her in mortal peril.
Some spoilers ahead.
Lou is the equivalent of a 19th century Ghostbuster: she’s hired out to help lost souls along before they turn violent. She inherited the business from her recently-deceased father, and navigates a strained relationship with her Chinese mother. It’s her mother who brings her word from neighbors in San Francisco’s Chinatown: their sons have gone off to Colorado to look for work, and they seem to vanish into thin air. Before long, Lou off by train to investigate, and discovers that a sanatorium deep in the Colorado Rockies is at the heart of the disappearances, and that there’s more to the problem than she thought.
There’s been a rush of Weird Western novels lately, stories that usually involve some level of fantasy or horror in the American West. Novels like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series and anthologies like John Joseph Adams’ Dead Man’s Hand have been playing with the setting quite a bit, but Tanzer’s novel is probably my favorite. It’s a book that’s comfortable with its setting, pulling the reader along with the premise with her world’s strange-but-similar additions. There’s talking bears, live-giving elixirs, ghosts haunting the deserts and vampires, all mixed together into one exciting setting.
While her book goes for the pulp-adventure vibe, Tanzer grounds Vermilion with some very serious elements that have all-to-much relevance to not only American history, but the modern world. Chinese immigrants were pressed into service to build the nation’s railroad network, even as they faced horrendous racism and attacks for simply being from somewhere else, a legacy which she draws upon with her characters. There’s other, progressive elements at play here as well: one character Lou befriends likes women, and was sent to the San to be ‘cured’. Tanzer populates her novel with strong, competent women from investigators to community leaders to random bystanders who get caught up in the action, often drawing on real, historical parallels.
The best thing about Vermilion is Lou Merriweather. Her job as a psychopomp has left her cynical and hardened at the age of 19, but her personality is a bit more complicated than that. She’s also of mixed race, not quite existing in Chinatown, but doesn’t fit in with the rest of San Francisco either. She works in the shadows, helping souls caught between worlds find their way to their final resting place, and it’s an occupation that fits well for her.
Lou is a driven character, eager to prove herself, despite the handicap that she’s been dealt with her appearance and gender. As her investigation into the disappearances lands her in deeper trouble, it’s clear that she also has a lot to learn. She’s fun, vibrant, rough around the edges and a kickass heroine, without falling into the trap of Lou being a re-purposed male character.
There’s been a lot of “Weird Western” books that I’ve enjoyed, but Vermilion seems to be the most comfortable with its own weird conventions. Tanzer doesn’t dwell or hang too much of a light on the speculative elements: they’re just there, and she fleshes them out as needed. The result is a world that feels authentic, and it feels like this won’t be the last time we’ll visit this particular world.
At the end of the day, Vermilion is a roller-coaster of a ride: it’s exciting, suspenseful and a downright blast to read, but it maintains a serious side that underscores the complicated history of the American West. Plus, talking bears and vampires.