The Haunted Mesa - Louis L'Amour
Mike Ragland is the hero and sole point-of-view of Louis L'Amour's "science fiction" novel, The Haunted Mesa. When Mike receives a letter from a friend, Erik Hokart, asking him to meet him in the New Mexico desert where he's building a house on a mesa, Mike answers the call, spurred by the letter's sense of urgency. He makes the rendezvous but Erik does not. Erik is missing, but he has left Mike a record of events that led up to his disappearance in the form of a "daybook" journal delivered to him by a mysterious woman who seems not of this world. Mike is an investigator of things paranormal, best known for exposing charlatans. He's an author, world traveler, ex-cowboy, and general roustabout--just the sort of knowledgeable tough guy to tackle the mystery of Erik's disappearance with its other-worldly undertones, and fight off any evil-doers involved.

In the course of Mike's investigation, he is aided by the local sheriff and followed by thugs who seem unfamiliar with the way our world works. Using Erik's journal as a guide, Mike follows a trail that leads to portals between dimensions, a ruined citadel containing a maze, "enforcers" that are unused to being resisted, a chief bad guy with steely fingers, a lost Indian tribe, giant lizards, and even the sasquatch make an appearance. All of the action, even in the other dimension, is set in the US desert southwest where Mike figures out the riddles, the maze, and shoots-and-punches bad guys and lizards to find his friend and win his Indian princess.

The Haunted Mesa is generally listed as science fiction in the bibliography of Mr. L'Amour's works, though I would consider it more fantasy or speculative. It was apparently his last novel (published a scant two months before his death in 1988) and I suspect it was a break from most of what he had written before. He was, along with Zane Grey, a preeminent writer of the American Western genre. Many of his works were made into movies and TV (e.g., John Wayne's Hondo) and he still has a passionate following.

Though set in contemporary times, I found The Haunted Mesa to be a thorough western in ambiance, theme, and structure despite it's speculative elements. And I mean "western" in the classic sense, like in John Ford movies and early 1960's television. The conflicts are very black-and-white, good-and-bad, with NO shades of gray. The point-of-view is with the protagonist, Mike Ragland, all the way through. Other characters come and go, but the tale told is Raglands, with no input from anybody else. He makes his way through the adventure two-fisted and armed--"He had no desire to kill anything," but then again, "nor did he have any desire to be a chance victim." So the bad guys (other dimensional Indians in this story) fall like regular Indians in a John Wayne film. We don't know why they're bad, they just are, and they're led by a guy who is the worst, also for no apparent reason.

If I'm sounding down on the book, it's mostly because I'm really not a fan of this genre. I read the book just because I wanted to see what a Louis L'Amour book was like and it was pretty much what I expected. So while this kind of western is not my favorite brand of storytelling, I realize that it is for a lot of people. The aspects of the story I described in the last paragraph are why many people like L'Amour's works. I understand that and, if you're one of those people, you'll probably like The Haunted Mesa. And I would recommend it to you because I suspect Mr. L'Amour stepped out of his comfort zone with this work and offered his fans some food for thought.

The main morsel of that thought food is the idea that the "paranormal" is really just the "normal" beyond the limits of what we've figured out. "There are more things in heaven and earth," in other words. On this point, Mr. L'Amour and I are in complete agreement, and he says it well:

The terms we use for what is considered supernatural are woefully inadequate. Beyond such terms as ghost, specter, poltergeist, angel, devil, or spirit, might there not be something more our purposeful blindness has prevented us from understanding?

Still, there are, in my opinion, technical problems with the story that kept me from giving it more than three stars.

First, as I said, the POV never leaves the protagonist. That's not bad in itself, it's just that it underscores the one-dimensionality of this storytelling. The story really needs the viewpoints of some other characters to give it some depth and to better pull in the reader.

Second, the conflicts were too black-and-white. This builds on my first point in that the secondary characters, especially the "bad" characters, have no depth and in some cases, barely react. The "other world" and its inhabitants are just bad for no reason (other than some intimation that their civilization had simply degenerated).

Third, there is not enough feel for "place." The story is set in the desert southwest, which with its red-rock canyons and stately mesas is a dramatic place for someone not accustomed to it. It's barely described in the story. We're told that the view from the top of the mesa is beautiful, but the words don't show it to us or let us feel the characters interaction with their environment. For this setting that a big omission, especially with a story that's not meant to be geared exclusively for fans of westerns.

Fourth, the romance was totally not believable. I guess that's part of the genre. The women are there as rewards for the cowboy hero defeating the bad guys, but Ragland seems to fall in love out of nowhere--when the object of his "affection" is not even around. When she is around, she doesn't react much to him in that way, and when he starts calling her "honey" it just sounds condescending. Oh well, I guess that's why cowboys kissed their horses at the end of the old movies.

Fifth, Indians are depicted as savage and/or backwards. I won't belabor this point, I could write scads about it. Western fans would say that the cowboy hero has a lot of respect for the Indians. I would argue, however, that the classic cowboy hero's respect for the Indian is really just a "white man's burden" kind of condescension.

Sixth, there were too many passages where Ragland's interior questionings were explicitly stated. There was far too much of this:

What was he doing here , anyway? Why was he not back at Tamarron, going down to the San Juan Room for breakfast in a normal, sensible, attractive world? What was he doing out here at the end of everything?

Some is OK, but too much is telling the reader what to think and how he should be reacting to the story. It amounts to "telling" and not "showing."

Those are my criticisms but let me add that Mr. L'Amour was a good writer. He made a living at it for most of his life, writing a genre at a time when there was a big market for it and establishing a large and loyal following. This is apparent in his prose, which he handles capably and is able to turn a compelling phrase here and there:

There were ancient mysteries, old gods who retired into the canyons to await new believers who would bring them to life once more.

Phrases like that are what kept me reading to the end.

The Haunted Mesa didn't do it for me, but if you're a fan of the classic western and are open to a little expansion on the basic storylines into speculative realms, you'll like this book.