Eric Powell and Kyle Hotz’s The Authentic Accounts of Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Oddities imagines that William Henry McCarthy — a.k.a. Billy the Kid — was not gunned down by Pat Garrett in 1881. Rather, the outlaw took to the rails and went into hiding. The story begins with a fateful encounter between McCarthy and Fineas Sproule, the purveyor of Sproule’s Biological Curiosities, a traveling “freak show.” Promising McCarthy a life of purpose with some limited security, Sproule, who has four hands (two where his feet should be), convinces McCarthy to join his enterprise. Over the next several hundred pages, they embark on a series of grim adventures featuring a mashup of literary and cinematic fiends that bring to mind the Universal Pictures’ creature features of the 1930s and ’40s.
Each tale unfolds in a rather predictable way. In the course of their travels, the Biological Curiosities encounter some rampaging beast — Dr. Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, the Loch Ness Monster, and others — and then chaos, usually extremely violent chaos, ensues. Throughout, McCarthy plays something of the fool. Fast on the draw but slow on the uptake, he stumbles through mysterious caves, castles, and crypts, blundering into and out of danger. Throughout, the only real element of surprise comes from Powell and Hotz’s willingness — perhaps eagerness — to kill off their main characters. These moments add some limited intrigue into what are otherwise rather cookie-cutter plots.
The book has a noteworthy style: tentacular forms are everywhere, and they are often accompanied by bloated, tumor-ridden faces, peaking from the corners. It is appropriately grotesque, but the artists really don’t modify their style over the course of the lengthy book, so, by the end, the reader will find all these worm-like terrors to be a bit more boring than disgusting.
While the authors use a number of well-established fixtures from the history of horror literature to tell their tales, they do so in ways that suggest that they are essentially ignorant of their source materials. All of the appropriated properties that show up in these “accounts” are denuded of the very qualities that make them scary in their respective works. This is a problem, as the go-to technique throughout this book for conveying horror is the gross out “gotcha” moment: suddenly severed limbs, stabbed or severed arteries, the unexpected appearance of a grotesque, and the like. While all of the literary works referenced in this book do make use of this same basic storytelling tool, they are also far more diverse in terms of the ways in which they set out to scare the reader. One of the unintended consequences of this book is that it mistakenly invites comparison with the works it references — and it simply is not operating in the same league.
This issue is relevant to the portrayal of McCarthy, who we should not forget was in real life a notorious murderer. The text provides McCarthy with a number of moments where he plays the hero, a fact that some readers will find more than a little disturbing. While it is true that there is a long history of American children acting out the character of Billy the Kid for amusement, at some point we all grow up and recognize that murder is a travesty. Interestingly, many of the monsters that populate this work were crafted by writers struggling to personify the horrible human vices that have ruined the lives of countless real people. By making a real-life monster like Billy the Kid the solution to these terrors, Powell and Hotz seem to be missing an important point about horror, both as a genre and as an everyday possibility. Monsters, even the greatest monsters, are nothing without a hero to put their actions into context. By selecting McCarthy as their hero, Powell and Hotz have given us a world of monsters fighting monsters. Such a world may be entertaining, but it can’t be scary — as nothing is at stake.