M. Evans and Company, 1974, 176 pages
Southwest Arizona, a century ago: an uneasy truce exists between the remote frontier community of Picture City and the neighboring Apaches. That delicate peace is shredded when the bodies of two white men are found hideously mutilated. The angry townspeople are certain the “savages” have broken the treaty, but Billjohn Finley, the local Indian agent, fears that darker, more unholy forces may be at work. There’s a tall, dark stranger in town, who rode in wearing the dead men’s clothes. A stranger who may not be entirely human.
Originally published as a mass-market Western in 1994, Shadow on the Sun has been largely overlooked by horror fans and general readers. But this tale of supernatural terror is sure to chill the blood of Matheson’s many fans.
Braided Feather, one of the last Apache war chiefs, has just signed a treaty with the U.S. Army after very tense negotiations facilitated by Indian agent Billjohn Finley. Not a day later, the two younger brothers of a local rancher are found horribly murdered. Naturally, the residents of Picture City assume the Injuns done it and want to send for the troops at Fort Apache right away. Nobody listens to Finley when he points out that it makes no sense and would be really stupid for Braided Feather to wage war for ten years, then sign a treaty just to break it a day later, so it's up to him to prove that something else is going on.
Something else is going on, and it proves to be supernatural. There is a strange man wandering through town, terrorizing whites and Indians alike. When Billjohn, along with a younger man sent from back East to take over his job, go to meet with Braided Feather and his Apaches, they hear a story about a terrible creature born as the result of black magic and human greed, and with Braided Feather's son, they set out to confront the evil.
This isn't what you'd call an original or unpredictable novel. The characters are your stock Western stereotypes, from Braided Feather, the crusty old war veteran who wants to keep his hotheaded younger warriors in check, to Billjohn Finley, the white man who has learned to respect and earned the trust of the local Indians, to David Boutelle, the arrogant slicker from back East who thinks Indians are all bloodthirsty savages but gradually becomes a little more open-minded. The villain is a monster born of an "Indian" legend that I'm pretty sure Matheson made up with little or no reference to any actual Apache legends; likewise, his Apaches are pretty much "noble savage" Hollywood Indians.
Shadow on the Sun is a taut little thriller. Richard Matheson is underrated as a writer; he's not a great author in terms of literary craftsmanship or originality, but he writes spare, lean stories that take a premise and run with it to the end. As a novelist and screenwriter who rivals Stephen King in his ability to turn entertaining if somewhat schlocky horror stories into major motion pictures, and the author of a number of famous Twilight Zone episodes, he's a good writer to be familiar with just to see how no-frills genre stories are written.
Verdict: If you like Westerns, or horror stories, and especially if you like the two together, this is a good brisk read that would probably be great fun to read by a campfire. Nothing exceptional or epic and certainly not Matheson's best or most imaginative work, but it's clear why his stories so easily translate into movies.
Also by Richard Matheson: My review of I Am Legend.