While a quick read, C.S. Humble’s weird western-horror tale, The Massacre at Yellow Hill, does pack quite a punch. The story opens with the inexplicable death of George Miller in the mines of Yellow Hill, Texas by a seemingly impossible – and vicious – underground predator, and the ensuing cover-up by the mine’s proprietor, Jeremiah Hart. Soon, as more bodies mount, George’s widow, Tabitha Miller finds herself not only at odds with one man’s greed and disregard for human life, but a deeper world of the occult and cosmic horror she never could have imagined. The mysterious events of Yellow Hill then quickly attract the attention of freed-slave turned supernatural bounty hunter, Gilbert Ptolemy, and his adopted son Carson, who – after a brutal run-in with a powerful and ancient vampire – make their way to the small mining town to investigate the creatures and Hart’s reasons for keeping them secret.
The Massacre at Yellow Hill is a solid debut novel from C.S. Humble, and I found a lot to love about it. The story is tight and focused, taking some truly unexpected turns at times, and kept me engaged throughout. While the book is less than 200 pages, it’s still able to build the occult mythology at a steady pace, unveiling small, clever world-building elements to the reader while the story progresses naturally.
Particularly engaging is the effort Humble put into having his characters – most notably Ptolemy and Carson – explore their deeper morality through various philosophical discussions peppered throughout the novel. With that, the reader is pushed to reflect on themes ranging from family, faith, and prejudice to concepts of existentialism, theism and universal ethics. One specific excerpt that sticks with me is a discussion the two have on the burden of responsibility in the latter half of the book:
“…There are things in this world, both human and inhuman, that require men of their time to take action. Bible says that as a man’s wisdom increases, so does his sorrow. That’s right, I think. This is the sorrow you carry. I carry it too, along with all the rest of the weights of life. Even if you quit now, son, even if you turn your back on this mission of ours, it won’t stop what’s coming.”
While there is undoubtedly quite a bit to unpack throughout the book as a whole, there were still some times I was left wanting a bit more. Arguably, the biggest drawback to The Massacre at Yellow Hill is that at times it feels a little too short. There were aspects of the story that felt a bit rushed and I would have loved to have had more time with some of the philosophy mentioned above, or getting to know some of the characters a bit more. This, however, doesn’t detract too much from the novel’s overall successes (and likely could be something easily repaired in a potential sequel).
Going into this book, I anticipated enjoying it. I have a soft spot for stories about unique monsters, and I was intrigued by the added element of it being a western. What I did not expect, however, was the story’s gradual descent into a Lovecraftian style of cosmic-horror, which, to me, made it all the better. What I also loved – noting H.P. Lovecraft’s notorious racism, sexism and other unsavory traits – was the fact that one of Humble’s central characters in the novel was a black man while another was a woman. I found this to be craftily subversive in paying homage to Lovecraft’s ideas while recognizing his problematic personal elements – arguably elevating The Massacre at Yellow Hill to a place alongside more progressively-minded Lovecraftian stories such as Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.