The Haunted Mesa by Louis L’Amour
Bantam Books, 1987
Price I paid: Most public library cards are free! Get one!
The Navajo called them the Anasazi: an enigmatic race of southwestern cliff dwellers. For centuries, the sudden disappearance of this proud and noble people has baffled historians. Summoned to a dark desert plateau by a desperate letter from an old friend, renowned investigator Mike Raglan is drawn into a world of mystery, violence, and explosive revelation. Crossing the border beyond the laws of man and nature, he will learn the astonishing legacy of the Anasazi—but not without a price. Set in the contemporary Southwest, The Haunted Mesa draws on Louis L’Amour’s extensive knowledge of Indian lore and mysticism. In this extraordinary book L’Amour tells a tale of epic adventure that takes his readers across the most extraordinary frontier they have ever encountered.
This review is going up on Monday instead of Sunday for a variety of reasons. The main one is that this book was loooong and I kept falling asleep while reading it, so I ended up finishing the darn thing Sunday night at about nine o’clock, by which point I gave no craps about getting the review up on time. The other reason is that Sunday was my birthday and I felt like I deserved a day off.
Somebody somewhere is probably wondering why in the hell I’m reviewing a Louis L’Amour book. Probably lots of people. It’s okay, though! The world has not gone all topsy-turvy. I haven’t suddenly added Masters of the Horse Opera to my reviewable genres. Even I’m a little bit surprised by this review. I mean, who am I to review Louis freakin’ L’Amour? I’m just a little turd who’s scared of horses. I have no right to criticize this man’s work.
But here’s the thing: The Haunted Mesa was L’Amour’s single work of science fiction. It also has the word haunted in the title, and today is Halloween, and that’s all the justification I really need.
Several places online, notably Wikipedia, call this book science fiction, but it’s really one of those edge cases where the genre lines get blurry. That’s great! I love it when genre lines get blurry. It’s my favorite. Not that I want to, like, argue about it with anybody. There’s nothing more boring than hearing two nerds argue about whether Star Wars is properly science fiction or some kind of space fantasy. (Clearly it’s the latter.)
The Haunted Mesa leans toward science fiction, but there are also some elements of Weird West floating around. Perhaps surprisingly, the genre that this book falls into least is standard western. Yes, it takes place in the West. Specifically it takes place in Utah, near the Arizona border. I did some Google Mapping to get a feel for the area (just before I realized that the book contains maps of its own) and, as one would probably expect, most, if not all, of the locations depicted in this novel are real. L’Amour obviously did his research, or, just as likely, knew what he was talking about.
The book’s not much of a Western, though, since it takes place in the present day (the eighties) and there’s only one cowboy. There’s a rancher, too, and some miners, but on the whole, this book does away with a lot of the standard Western character tropes.
Our hero is Mike Raglan. He’s not the cowboy. He did some mining back in the day, which got him familiar with the country, but actually he’s a writer. He writes books about weird spooky things and the unexplained, sort of a Fortean Times kind of guy. What made him endearing to me, though, is that he’s not some pie-in-the-sky mystical woo-woo man. He’s a skeptic, and most of his writing is about him going around and finding frauds who claim to be in contact with woo-woo. At the same time, he’s not some caricature of skeptics, all closed-minded and stuff. He’s rather open-minded, in fact, and is ready to believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. He just also dislikes frauds who take advantage of people. I like Mike.
Mike’s friend, Erik Hokart, has gone missing. Erik is an electronics genius who has recently moved to the setting of this book for some alone time. He’s made his money and he’s ready for an early retirement. Erik has contacted Mike with some cryptic information and a cry for help. Something is very definitely up, and it doesn’t look good.
Erik’s summons contains references to windows to other worlds, creepy villains, mysterious beautiful women, and so forth. The area near his planned home, on top of a mesa, contains an Anasazi ruin, a kiva, and there’s something spooky about it.
There’s a lot I don’t know about the Anasazi. From what I gather, there’s a lot most people don’t know about the Anasazi. A bit of Wikipedia research tells me that the word Anasazi isn’t appreciated by their descendants, modern Puebloan peoples like the Hopi, since it’s actually a Navajo term for “ancestors of our enemies.” I can understand how calling people that all willy-nilly might be a little offensive. Anyway, I bring this up so you know that I had no idea how much of this book had any historical or archaeological validity as I read it, but parts of it seemed to ring true. L’Amour can be trusted to do his research, and in this book, at least, he treats the history of the First Peoples with a degree of respect. It’s notable that he never says anything like “Indians believe blah blah,” but instead brings such beliefs up with specific Native nations in mind, such as “The Hopi think such and such, while the Navajo say so-and-so.” He even notes that some groups have differing opinions within their own traditions. Again, research. Is it correct research? I dunno. But at least it doesn’t seem offensively broad and woo-woo mystical. There are no dreamcatchers in this book, although if somebody still wanted to make a claim for cultural appropriation, I wouldn’t argue with them.
So the thing about the Ancestral Puebloans is that they had some amazing structures and then basically disappeared. This book deals with the fact that they disappeared. Their own origin stories, at least according to this book (and Wikipedia), say that they came from the “Third World” to our “Fourth World.” This book speculates that they went back to the Third World, which was evil, after things got a little too real in our world. What Mike ends up discovering, then, is how they did that.
For all its strengths, this book was pretty flawed. For one, it draaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaggggeed on. This 360 page paperback could have been about half the length and not lost anything. Mike spends so much of this book Hamleting around, trying to figure out what to do, questioning himself, questioning his own knowledge, questioning the information he’s been given. In a real world situation, I would respect the heck out of that. There’s no need to run headlong into a mysterious portal to another world without getting your bearings together first. Gotta have prep time. Good for him. But I don’t want to read about it.
I get to summarize this book pretty heavily since so little happens for the first two-thirds of the book. Mike meets some people and learns some things. Some of the people are on his side, others are not. The local sheriff is a good guy. There’s this rancher whose life Mike once saved and seems to be on their side for a while. There’s a woman named Kawasi, who comes from the other world and is beautiful. She gives Mike a lot of warnings and disappears again. Mike starts to pick up a little information about the other world and all it does is make him hesitate more, asking lots and lots of questions to himself in narration until I rolled my eyes and wanted to skip to the end of the chapter.
One question that keeps coming up is how, exactly, the other world is “evil.” This is a legitimate question. By whose standards is it evil? Does it have Nazis? Or does it have some kind of soul-eating monsters? Maybe the people who told us it’s evil have different standards of evil than we do. Like, to bring up Nazis again, if a Nazi came up to me and said “Don’t go there, it’s evil,” I’d probably be down with going there, since what this hypothetical Nazi is probably trying to describe is a place where hummus is plentiful and everybody speaks Esperanto. Evil can be relative, and so our hero spends a lot of time thinking about that.
The one solid fact is that his friend Erik is missing. Mike has to go find him. It’s important. What finally pushes Mike over the edge and into the magic kiva window is that somebody, probably Kawasi, shows up and says that now the stakes are higher because there’s an arbitrary time limit.
The folks on the other side basically just live in a dictatorship, run by some guy called The Hand who has an army at his beck and call that everybody thinks is invincible. The fact that everybody, including the army guys themselves, think they’re invincible works in Mike favor quite well, since they have no idea what’s happening when he starts gunning them down.
Mike also meets an old cowboy named Johnny, who came into the other world a long time ago and is now well into his nineties. He’s very healthy, though. He joins the party.
One thing that was great was how Mike would convince his enemies to help him out. This happened several times: Somebody would capture him or threaten him or tell him not to try and save his friend, and Mike would threaten them. What did he threaten them with? White people. He would say something like “Look, you like this world so much, with your evil totalitarian empire and whatever? Well, just wait until I convince some government officials and businessmen that this world exists. It looks pretty ripe for the plucking, and if there’s anything my people know about, it’s plucking the hell out of whatever resources exist. Give it ten years and we’ll have this whole damn alternate universe strip mined, strip malled, and strip searched to the point where you won’t even recognize it. Your stupid magic army won’t stand three seconds against the United States Marine Corps. Bring it.”
This generally works.
Mike has to endure some kind of magic maze to get to Erik, but he manages. Mike, Erik, and Johnny flee, meet up with Kawasi, keep fleeing, meet a riverboat named Iron Mountain (at least that mystery is solved), and have some run-ins with bad guys. The clock is ticking and I just realized that I forgot to mention what the clock was arbitrarily ticking down to. Apparently all the portals are going to close. Oh no.
There’s a fight near a portal. The old rancher that Mike thought was a good guy turns out to be a bad guy. Everybody rushes headlong for the portal. The old rancher is shooting at them, the magic other world army is chasing them, and among that army is a huge guy named Zipacna, whom Mike fights and gets wounded. He makes it through the portal at the penultimate second. That old rancher chose the last second, but it didn’t work out all that well, and now he’s cut in half like that bit in Stargate.
That’s the story and, honestly, I can’t say I enjoyed it a whole heck of a lot. Certainly some bits were enjoyable, and the book really picked up near the end, but goshagolly it seemed like it took forever to get anywhere.
I’ve read some of L’Amour’s Westerns before and I can’t say they ever felt quite as draggy as this. Usually his novels are short and punchy, straight-to-the-action sorts of things. Nothing like this.
Reading L’Amour’s science fiction makes me want to draw a comparative analogy. Reading this book was something akin to watching a master sculptor of marble work on an ice statue for the first time. A lot of the skills are there, but since it’s a different medium things just don’t work quite right. With time and practice, yes, this master marble sculptor would likely be a master ice sculptor, too. In this case, it’s unfortunate we’ll never find out whether L’Amour would have been a master science fiction writer, because he passed away not long after this book was published.
One bright spot in this whole experience: I realized about a quarter of the way into this book that it was much more enjoyable if I imagined Sam Elliott reading it aloud to me. Later I realized that this works for every book. I’m reading this book about Chaos Magick now (for research purposes) and here am I imagining Sam Elliott talking about sigils and servitors and stuff, and it’s freaking AWESOME.
Happy Halloween, y’all.
One thought on “The Haunted Mesa”
I spent decades writing science fiction to the sound of Leonard Cohen, with a Louis L’Amore novel sitting in waiting. When my brain reached empty, I would take off an hour with LL to cleanse my mental palate. LL is the very best at what he does, and in his westerns, the action is slam-bang, unceasing, and the ruminations are sparse and short. Because of why I read them, I have read most of his novels many times. I read Haunted Mesa only once. I tried several times to read it again, but I hit the wall every time, for exactly the reasons you spell out – too much talk, too much self-doubt, too little action. Your sculptor analogy is spot on, except that LL also wrote a bunch of “historicals”, i.e. westerns not set in the 1880s, and they didn’t get better. Same complaints as for Haunted Mesa. He should have stuck with westerns. All in all, I liked your review a lot more than the book. Most of all, I would love to read Haunted Mesa if LL had trimmed off 200 pages. That would have been worth the price of admission. Syd Logsdon
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