Dead Man’s Hand and Pieces of Hate are two linked novella by Tim Lebbon. They focus on Gabriel, a seemingly immortal individual, driven to seek and end a demon called Temple, whose presence in any society appears to presage calamity.
Dead Man’s Hand is set in the Deadwood of the 1800’s, filled with prospectors, ne’er-do-wells, outlaws, and the occasional shopkeeper. Lebbon manages to evoke the atmosphere he desires with pitch-perfect precision. There’s a dusty sense of tension, of coiled violence beneath a veneer of humanity. It’s a quietly lethal environment, surrounded by the raucous mutterings of the townsfolk. Alongside this unfamiliar familiarity, there’s an atmosphere, a creeping sense of dread intersecting with the scent of blood and iron already in the air. We’re given oddity in the person of Gabriel, but also the quiet, cheerfully eerie horror of Temple. His casual malevolence floods every page in which he’s mentioned, and the environment which he inhabits has traces of that all around. Deadwood is a place, granted, but it feels like one separated by liminal barriers. The throbbing heart of the town, lividly vital, is distinct from, but stands beside, the escalating horrors brought in by Temple and Gabriel. It is, however, extremely believable in both incarnations.
By contrast, Pieces of Hate gives us sea voyages in the 1600’s. Gabriel chases Temple once again, this time toward the fleet of notorious pirate Henry Morgan. There’s more environments here – a sea voyage toward an independent harbour, and another journey and time spent aboard Morgan’s flagship – but they carry the same aura. The sea is the strongest environmental factor, from digestive upsets to naval disasters, and it’s to the author’s credit that the reader can almost taste the mix of salt and rum on the wind. The ships creak and buckle alarmingly, and the world is, again, one teetering on the brooding edge of violence.
The core characters are the same in both texts – Temple, the remarkably lethal demon, who kills for some combination of pleasure and funds, and Gabriel, the scarred, brutal and brutalised man who seeks to bring about the demon’s end. They’re both skilfully crafted archetypes; Temple is almost the living spirit of casual wickedness, killing men for the joy of it, tearing into their souls and uncovering their deepest fears, before acting as a focal point of horror and destruction. There’s something compelling about his singlemindedness of purpose, something which makes it impossible to look away, even as he enacts some truly impressive acts of terror. That same quality of focus is possessed by his hunter.
Gabriel lives for vengeance, tracking his foe through space and time, seeking any edge, any means to finally bring an end to their long standing chase. Gabriel is perhaps slightly more sympathetic, but also charmingly selfish, turning aside friendships and life aside from his own drive toward a satisfied revenge. It’s telling that between the two books, Temple remains effectively the same – but we see the beginnings of Gabriel, the origins of his scars and deadly hatred, and can see his character taking shape over the course of the narrative.
There’s some interesting side characters in both cases – usually those who interact with Gabriel. Though they may have cause to regret it, they bring an everyman view into the story, and help counteract the sheer strangeness of the protagonist and the villain. I would have liked to see more of those characters in Pieces of Hate, but what we get from them there is at least sufficient to help shape Gabriel’s character and narrative, so I shan’t complain too much!
Plot-wise, these are fairly straightforward pieces of narrative. Gabriel looks to hunt down Temple, coursing after him through the dry gulch of Deadwood and the soaring waves of the Caribbean. In both cases, however, they’re a chase. There’s rarely a dull moment, between the growing premonitions of disaster, and the constantly simmering possibility of violence. It’s certainly enough to keep you turning pages.
Are they worth reading? In both cases, I’d have to say yes. They’re stories which know what they want to say, razor-sharp on the topic of revenge and the costs thereof. There’s violence, pensive questions of morality, and a desire to understand what drives men – and their demons. Absolutely worth a look.