When I heard that A Congregation of Jackals was a thing, I knew without hesitation that I had to read it. My favorite book of this type was a horrific, bloody brutality-fest by the same author titled Wraiths of the Broken Land and the script for the groundbreaking horror/western mash-up, “Bone Tomahawk” was also penned by S. Craig Zahler so I had high hopes for this title. Fortunately for me, Raw Dog Screaming Press is always accommodating and editor Jennifer Barnes offered me a review copy before I even had a chance to ask for it, and I can tell you in advance that it more than exceeded my lofty expectations.
When it comes to westerns I’ll be the first to admit I’m a hard sell. I mean, horror is my thing and, while I cut my early reading teeth on the likes of Zane Grey and Louis L‘Amour, I had much heavier and more satisfying doses of Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, and the rest of their ilk and I’ve long since gone the way of the buffalo as far as westerns go. But there have been some gems that have slipped through over the years, the most notable being the brutal and beautiful Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve argued repeatedly that it’s as much horror as it is western or Americana, with its scenes of violence and brutality and the hardcore sense of dread that permeates the entire story, and Wraiths of the Broken Land is another book that fits into that category quite comfortably and for much the same reason. But nothing in my reading experience came remotely close to preparing me for the phenomenon that is S. Craig Zahler’s A Congregation of Jackals.
In A Congregation of Jackals Oswell Danford receives a letter in the guise of a wedding invitation that draws him and his brother Godfrey and two of their old partners into the past and straight into the mouth of savage brutality. They once made a living robbing banks with some less than savory men and now some of those old ghosts have resurfaced with vengeance and cruelty in mind. To tell you much more than that would be to risk spoiling some important little detail or delight that is better experienced firsthand, so I’ll leave it right there and get on to the things that really moved me about this story and made it at the very least a tie for favorite dark western ever.
Storytelling is a funny thing in that sometimes a story works for you but you’re not really sure why. In many ways, that’s how it is with A Congregation of Jackals. Sure there are some definable things that Zahler handles with uncanny brilliance. For starters, he’s created some of the most well developed characters I’ve ever encountered in a story, making them breathe and cry and scream and bleed off the page and straight into your bone marrow. And then there’s the setting, which couldn’t have been done any better by Cormac McCarthy himself. You can smell the dust in the air and feel the sun beating down on your skin, and you get a sense that you’ve somehow been transported into that place of sadism and terror as an almost interactive observer. But above and beyond all that, there’s that ethereal, almost vaporous something that is mostly indefinable but of the utmost importance to the tale in general. In truth, the only thing I can attribute it to is an incredible, almost innate ability with storytelling. I had an uncle who could regale you for hours on end with tall tales and campfire stories and Zahler can do the same thing for page after page after page. He writes like a man possessed and once you start this book, you’ll read like a person obsessed.
S. Craig Zahler has a knack for telling a perfect—and perfectly horrifying—revenge tale. He worships at the altar of blood and vicious, pain inducing violence, and there are scenarios here that would scare the hell out of Barker or King, so brutal and horrifying that my skin crawls even long after I’ve completed the act of reading the book. It’s a story that will embed itself in your psyche and scramble your brain with its unapologetic, unwavering look into the heart of human cruelty and the extents that evil men will go to for the sake of retribution.
While A Congregation of Jackals isn’t my first tango with the work of S. Craig Zahler, it’s a new experience all the same. It’s the best thing he’s written to date, which is saying a mouthful given his prior achievements with “Bone Tomahawk” and the soon to be motion picture, Wraiths of the Broken Land, but it’s an easy thing to say. I had my favorite books of the year clearly defined until recently and now this book and one other are forcing me to completely reorder the damn thing. If you’ve not read Zahler’s groundbreaking fiction before, go grab a copy of this book and find a comfortable place to get your mind blown by this incredible, un-putdownable read.