Ronald Kelly is best known for a particular brand of horror – the kind that takes place deep in the kudzu-lined hills and hollers of his beloved South. So Timber Gray is actually a departure for Kelly in a couple of ways: 1)It’s set in the Wild West of the past; and 2) it’s not a horror novel, but rather a Western with some truly horrific elements.
Timber Gray is the story of a grizzled old wolf hunter of the same name, a self-reliant mountain man more comfortable alone in the wilderness than in what passed for civilization in this country’s early, lawless days. Gray is a legend among the ranchers and cattlemen who call upon his abilities, a man known to have unsurpassed skill in the tracking and killing of wild wolves. It wasn’t always that way. Gray was once a family man, building a simple life for his wife and son in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, a life that was irreversibly shattered by a pack of rabid wolves that descended on the young family one Fall day, killing Gray’s family and gravely wounding him. Feverish and insane with rabies, Gray was taken to a Cherokee medicine man who brought him from death’s door with a new passion to hunt and kill the creatures that had brought ruin to his life.
That’s the legend of Timber Gray, and, as Kelly reiterates throughout the book, sometimes legend is true, and sometimes legend is the truth stretched a bit. With Gray, it’s mostly true. With Ol’ Cripplefoot, the “Ghost Wolf” and subject of many a campfire tale…well, Timber Gray is on a path to separate fact from fiction when it comes to that particular wolf, and he may not like what he’s about to find.
The hunter and the wolf have crossed paths before, and as Gray sets out on a new assignment – to hunt and kill a pack of 50 wolves led by Ol’ Cripplefoot that are plaguing an influential Montana rancher – they are set to cross paths again. As Gray begins tracking the pack, he finds enemies not only in the wolves he hunts, but in the people he crosses paths with; a born-again preacher struck insane by a mule kick to the head, for one, and a group of bloodthirsty bounty hunters for another. Kelly does a great job of weaving these encounters into the overall tale of Gray’s hunt, making enemies not only of them but of the very elements Gray is travelling through as he tries to complete his mission.
Kelly is working hard to create the atmosphere of a classic Western novel here, and for the most part he succeeds. The novel moves at a quick pace, and in places has the feel of a Jack London adventure for young readers. This is more John Wayne Western than Coen Brothers Western, and may in fact be a little too safe and sanitary for some older modern readers. I think it’s a great book for younger kids, though, full of action and well-defined characters and a ton of cliffhangers. The dialogue sometimes reads like it was lifted straight from an old Hollywood serial (“I do declare!” declares one character), and maybe could have done with a little “roughening up” to evoke a more realistic feel, but in this place and context it works just fine. It certainly doesn’t have the rough edges of, say, the HBO series Deadwood, but it’s no less effective without them.
Timber Gray is an interesting experiment for Kelly, and I think it’s safe to say he had a blast writing it. If an old-fashioned Western sounds like your cup of tea, I guarantee you’ll have a blast reading it.