Tuesday, September 30, 2014
I didn’t read a lot when I was a little kid.
Scratch that—I didn’t read a lot of books. I read comics, that was what I did. I’ve mentioned in other posts how much comic books shaped my life, even as an adult, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that comics actually taught me how to read. My mom took full advantage of my bizarre obsession with dudes in tights and capes running around beating up bad guys by making sure I never ran out of comics to read (they were super-cheap in those days). And so, through them, I learned about story structure, conflict, character development (as miniscule as it was) and all those other things that go toward making a story work.
At about ten years old, I began casting around for other heroic tales to put myself into, and that’s when actual books started playing a role. We started studying Greek mythology in school, and I fell in love, devouring Bulfinch and Edith Hamilton. I discovered the exciting and bloody tales of King Arthur via Mallory (no, I didn’t read Le Mort D’Arthur at ten years old, but rather an illustrated children’s version). Basically, these were like super-hero stories, except that the teacher didn’t seem to judge them as harshly. Perfect.
But my first actual adult reading occurred pretty much by accident: stumbling across this short story collection hidden away in the basement, something my mom had apparently forgotten. It was called HAUNTINGS. It had this gorgeously creepy cover by Edward Gorey, and stories by Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, John Collier, and a bunch of others as well. The cover sparked my morbid little imagination, and I sat there in that dark basement and read three or four in a row and everything—I mean, everything—changed for me. It would never be the same again.
Heroics fell by the wayside for a while then, to be replaced by an overwhelming need to have the shit scared out of me.
Through my teens and even well into my twenties I was a horror nut, reading every horror novel I could find and becoming quite the little expert on the genre. I especially fell in love with Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Manly Wade Wellman's John the Balladeer stories. This all coincided with the so-called “horror boom” of the eighties, so it worked out pretty well.
Not to say that I never read anything but scary shit. There were books we read in school that I actually quite liked. The usual stuff, you know: Lord of the Flies (which is still one of my favorites), Huckleberry Finn, Call of the Wild.
I also got hold of some old Doc Savage re-prints then, great heroic stuff if not exactly brilliantly written. The Shadow followed (to a lesser extent), and Robert E. Howard’s stories about Conan and Solomon Kane.
At fifteen or so, on a whim, I read a couple Mack Bolan Executioner books, by Don Pendleton, and absolutely lost my shit. Ultra-violent, non-stop action. The perfect thing for removing an awkward young man from a world he had no control over and giving him some "realistic" heroic fantasy to cling to. At that time in my life, I needed the well-crafted escapism that the Executioner books provided, and within two months I’d read every single book in the series up ‘til then (which was somewhere around fifty, I think).
Anyway… the finest (and occasionally trashiest) of horror, along with the bloody campaigns of Mack Bolan, sustained me throughout my teenage years. There was other stuff, granted, but that was what made up the bulk of my reading then.
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that my reading habits took a monumental turn and opened right up. Books and writers that I still read now, and that had an enormous influence on my own writing.
I read Hammett, then, and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
But it really started with Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson.
The Black Lizard re-prints of classic paperback original stuff from the 50's were just coming out then, and I can't really over-state what an impact they had on me. I've talked elsewhere about how Pop. 1280 changed things for me, and on the heels of that one I discovered Charles Willeford, Peter Rabe, Dan J. Marlowe, Day Keene, etc.
I started seeking out similar writers, stumbled across John D. MacDonald, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith.
If I had to boil it down, the "noir" writers had the biggest impact of all. I still loved other genres (and still do), but those paperback original writers who slaved away in relative obscurity made a permanent mark on me like no one else.
In my early 30's I started developing a taste for Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, and discovered that, tonally, they read very much like the noir writers.
For a while, I flirted with a lot of modern speculative fiction, and was particularly blown away by James Morrow, Tim Powers, and George Saunders (who, honestly, is some kind of genius).
All of this varied reading wound up informing the story and structure of my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, which, for good or ill, defies categorization.
Lately, I've been reading a lot of Westerns. One more genre thrown in the mix, right?
The thrill of discovering new writers and new kinds of stories never gets old. With any luck, it will never stop happening.
Saturday, September 27, 2014
HAWTHORNE: TALES OF A WEIRDER WEST is free on Amazon Kindle for the next five days or so. It contains:
An introduction by Western legend James Reasoner, and the stories:
That Damned Coyote Hill
The Long Black Train
The Spider Tribe
The Unholy; or, How the Gowan Gang Died
I won't lie, I'm rather proud of these stories.
Friday, September 26, 2014
A few days ago, someone asked me when and where my first story was published. I couldn't remember. Isn't that nuts? I honestly could not tell her the year the story came out, and I had to think for a minute before I could even remember where it appeared. Crazy.
It was important to me, obviously, but damn. There is clearly something wrong with my brain.
So... I took some time yesterday to piece together my publication history, more for myself than anyone else. I've always been really horrible about keeping track of stuff like this. But there were enough resources on my hard drive and on line for me to work it out.
If you're interested, here it is. But like I say, this is mostly for me.
--To be released: A Western novel that I can't say anything about yet.
--To be completed: A screenplay that I also can't say much about yet.
Doing this actually made me feel a little better about what I'm doing. Not a bad body of work for a few short years. With any luck, this is just the beginning. But you know how these things go... Thanks for reading.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Of all the cool sonsofbitches ever to grace the flickering black and white landscape of a movie screen, none ever tilted the cool meter the way Robert Mitchum did. This is a fact. We watch a Mitchum movie and marvel at the nonchalance, the wry, cynical poise, the sheer wicked-coolness of his persona. His Kind of Woman, Out of the Past, Crossfire… even when he played a baddie, like in Cape Fear or Night of the Hunter, he radiated the kind of laid-back charm that squares like you and me can only dream of.
But don’t feel bad. With a little practice, you too can Be Like Mitch—or at least come passingly close.
Here are three quick examples of Mitch-ness, and how you can emulate them:
In the early ‘50’s, Mitch was arrested for possession of marijuana. In those squeaky clean public image-obsessed days in Hollywood, a drug bust would’ve spelled the end of an acting career… but not so for our Mitch. There’s a great photo of him doing his time in prison, wearing the grays and pushing a mop around, that laconic smile still firmly in place.
And of course America couldn’t stay mad at him after that photo. He apologized to the public for his “immoral behavior” but if the photo was any indication he didn’t feel particularly torn up about it. And to judge by the fact that his career didn’t lose even half a step afterwards America didn’t mind either.
So, Be Like Mitch lesson one: if you make a bad move and everyone finds out about it, so freaking what? Smile and shrug and get on with things.
Catch-phrases. Hollywood loves ‘em. Ah-nold had “I’ll be back”, Eastwood had “Make my day”. But the phrase most associated with Mitch, uttered with casual aplomb in His Kind of Woman, was much cooler: “Baby, I don’t care.”
Be Like Mitch lesson two, then: Don’t be overly-concerned with what the hell anyone else thinks. Let them all pose and poster and spout off in their self-involved ego trips. None of it has to touch you.
In his later years, Mitch did a movie with a young actor who told the story of how, on set one day, he witnessed Mitch going through his script and marking ninety percent of the pages with the initials N.A.R. The young actor asked him what N.A.R. meant. Mitch grinned and said, “It means No Acting Required, kid.”
And that’s Be Like Mitch lesson three: don’t waste energy or effort when you don’t need to. Banging your head against the wall and putting more into a project than it requires is for suckers. Mitch-types save their energy for things that are worthy of it.
So that’s it. Follow those three simple rules, keep that laconic half-smile on your face, and don’t let the posers and squares touch that inner, cool core of yours. Mitch never did, right? And the world would be much better if we would all just Be Like Mitch!
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
I suppose it's likely, assuming that I have many more years of reading ahead of me, my choices for personal favorite ANYTHINGS will change. But I'm a sucker for lists. As long as I don't have to be held to them the rest of my life.
Here are my ten personal favorite Western novels, all read within the last two years or so. If you've never read a Western, any one of these would be a great place to start. Oh, and I've limited myself to choosing just ONE book per writer, otherwise this thing would get lopsided in a hurry.
VENGEANCE VALLEY- Luke Short
This was one of the first Westerns I read, and set a pretty high bar for everything to follow. I've read a few other Luke Short's since, and he hasn't let me down.
From Goodreads: "The Fasken brothers strode into town with a grim announcement: they were going to kill a man before they left--the man who had brought disgrace upon their sister. The man they thought they wanted was Owen Daybright. And Owen was indeed involved with their sister. But he was innocent of any wrong-doing--he just wanted to help her. He also knew the name of the guilty man, but even a confrontation with Fasken guns won't get it out of him. Here is an explosive, fast-moving Western, in which a man's fierce loyalty to a coward makes him a target for killers' guns."
REDEMPTION, KANSAS- James Reasoner
It's no secret I'm a great admirer of Reasoner's. This wasn't the first thing I ever read from him, but it's an excellent example of his skills.
From Amazon: "Injured in a cattle stampede on a drive through Kansas, Bill is healing in Redemption. Tended to by a shopkeeper's lovely daughter, Eden Monroe, there are worse places he could be. But Bill knows something's wrong. A series of unexplained killings plagues the town. It's up to Bill to figure out what's going on before his beloved Eden gets caught in the cross fire."
APPALOOSA- Robert Parker
I didn't expect to like this one so much, as I'm not a big fan of Parker's "Spencer" novels. Very glad I gave it a chance. It was terrific.
From Amazon: "When Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch arrive in Appaloosa, they find a town suffering at the hands of a renegade rancher who’s already left the city marshal and one of his deputies dead. Cole and Hitch are used to cleaning up after scavengers, but this one raises the stakes by playing not with the rules—but with emotion."
DEATH OF A GUNFIGHTER- Lewis B. Patten
Along with Luke Short, Lewis B. Patten is my favorite of the "old school" Western writers, and this, in my opinion, is his best.
From Goodreads: "Frank Patch had outlived his usefulness to the town of Cottonwood Springs and the townspeople were determined to get rid of him--one way of the another.But Patch had been their sheriff for twenty years. He had fought, bled and killed to turn a lawless cattle town into a peaceful community and being sheriff was the only life he knew.
Then Luke Mills, a harmless drunk, tried to gun Patch down."
DEATH GROUND- Ed Gorman
I knew Ed Gorman as a writer of tight suspense, mystery and horror, but this, his first Western I read, was a revelation.
From Amazon: "Bounty hunter Leo Guild is on the trail of a wily mountain man wanted for a deadly bank robbery, but he’s not entirely convinced his quarry is the true guilty party."
The first volume in this series of short stories was terrific, and one of the books that opened my eyes to what could be done in the Western genre. But this one, the second, was even better. Terrific short stories.
From Amazon: "In 1880s Wyoming Territory, two Deputy U.S. Marshals find themselves on the outside of societal norms. Cash Laramie, raised by the Arapahos, is known as The Outlaw Marshal for his unorthodox conduct toward criminals and his cavalier approach to life. Gideon Miles, one of the first African Americans in the marshal service, is honorable, fearless, and unrivaled in his skills with guns, knives, and tracking."
SMONK- Tom Franklin
I hesitated to include this one, as it is decidedly odd and not what you'd consider a straight Western. But damnit, I enjoyed the hell out of it, so here it is.
From Amazon: "It's 1911 and the townsfolk of Old Texas, Alabama, have had enough. Every Saturday night for a year, E. O. Smonk has been destroying property, killing livestock, seducing women, cheating and beating men, all from behind the twin barrels of his Winchester 45-70 caliber over-and-under rifle. Syphilitic, consumptive, gouty, and goitered—an expert with explosives and knives—Smonk hates horses, goats, and the Irish, and it's high time he was stopped. But capturing old Smonk won't be easy—and putting him on trial could have shocking and disastrous consequences, considering the terrible secret the citizens of Old Texas are hiding."
THE SISTERS BROTHERS- Patrick DeWitt
A very clever, well-written pastiche that deliberately stomps all over the classic Western tropes.
From Amazon: "darkly comic, outrageously inventive novel that offers readers a decidedly off-center view of the Wild, Wild West. Set against the back-drop of the great California Gold Rush, this odd and wonderful tour de force at once honors and reshapes the traditional western while chronicling the picaresque misadventures of two hired guns, the fabled Sisters brothers."
GUNSIGHTS- Elmore Leonard
I was torn between this one from Leonard and FORTY LASHES LESS ONE, but GUN SIGHTS won out because it's more a traditional western, whereas FORTY LASHES takes place almost entirely in Yuma Prison.
From Amazon: "Brendan Early and Dana Moon have tracked renegade Apaches together and gunned down scalp hunters to become Arizona legends. But now they face each other from opposite sides of what newspapers are calling The Rincon Mountain War. Brendan and a gang of mining company gun thugs are dead set on running Dana and "the People of the Mountain" from their land. The characters are unforgettable, the plot packed with action and gunfights from beginning to end."
TRUE GRIT- Charles Portis
If you don't read any of the above, then read this. Not just one of the greatest Westerns ever written-- one of the greatest novels, period. An absolute joy to read.
From Goodreads: "Mattie Ross, 14, from Dardanelle, Arkansas, narrates half a century later, her trip in the winter of 1870s, to avenge the murder of her father. She convinces one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshall, to tag along, while she outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten types in her path."
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
FORTY LASHES LESS ONE
Surprisingly funny Western that takes place mostly within the walls of Yuma prison in the early part of the 20th century. Harold is the only black inmate at the soon-to-be-closed Yuma, and Raymond is the only Indian, which makes them the targets of derision. Shelby, a prisoner with connections, makes their lives hell, until the new warden, Mr. Manly, takes a special interest in the pair and decides to elevate their confidence in the hopes he can bring them to Jesus. Harold and Raymond eventually form a bond, based on their desire to be like the warriors of their ancestry. When Shelby and his cohorts plan an escape, Manly relies on the misfits to bring the fugitives to justice.
I loved how the central characters were nothing like your standard Western heroes-- like pretty much every character in the book, they aren't too bright and they aren't too heroic. But there's something very likable about both of them.
There's a scene about mid-way through FORTY LASHES LESS ONE that was pure Leonard humor, where Warden Manly is trying to explain some finer points of the Bible to the boys, who are clearly not getting it. It's presented in the sort of dead-pan way that Leonard would later become famous for, and reminded me once again why his dialogue is so enviable.
The very last paragraph made me laugh out loud.
THE LAW AT RANDADO
I believe this is Leonard's second novel, written in the early '50's, and as such doesn't really display the trademark humor and terrific dialogue we know him for. For all that, though, it's still very well-written, spare and lean, befitting the Arizona setting.
A group of Randado's prominent citizens, manipulated by rich cattle baron Phil Sundeen, lynch a pair of rustlers without waiting on due process of law. When the young, green deputy sheriff, Kirby Frye, gets wind of it, he sets out to serve warrants to the men involved-- only to be humiliated and run out of town. But Frye isn't about to let the law be subverted; he gathers himself, along with a loose handful of allies, and sets out to bring Sundeen and his lackies to justice.
It's a fairly standard Western scenario, especially in the last fourth, with Frye on the trail of the fleeing Sundeen, but still manages to play out in the end in unexpected ways. Frye is an interesting character, torn between youthful impetuousness and level-headed responsibility, and Sundeen is a nicely sleazy villain. The other characters all straddle lines somewhere between the two, but their main crime seems to be cowardice.
So... THE LAW AT RANDADO is a typical Western, elevated by a fast-pace and superior writing.
Bren Early and Dana Moon are occasional partners and uneasy friends who have been through more than their share of harrowing adventures together over the years. But it looks like fate may land them on opposite sides of a land war-- Moon has taken the job of Indian Affairs agent, tasked with protecting the interests of the residents of Rincon Mountain, and Early is in the employ of a powerful mining company that wants the native's off the mountain.
Tensions build as newsmen from around the country flock, anticipating an epic showdown between the two gunmen friends, and things are complicated further by the arrival of Phil Sundeen, a rustler who Early and Moon left for dead some years earlier. For Sundeen, the land war is the perfect opportunity for some revenge.
As noted above, I read THE LAW AT RANDADO right before GUNSIGHTS; RANDADO is a very early Leonard and the villain in it is Phil Sundeen. GUNSIGHTS is Leonard's last western, written about 25 years later, and marks the return of Sundeen. The events of RANDADO aren't mentioned in GUNSIGHTS, but I thought it was an interesting choice to bring the sleazy bastard back for another appearance.
Dana Moon and Bren Early are both terrific characters, and not really typical of Leonard in that they are both rather taciturn. They are a lot alike in some ways, but over the course of the novel Leonard fleshes out their particular character traits, highlights the huge differences between them-- Moon is grounded and knows what he wants out of life, Early is rudderless and a bit in love with Death and Glory. And the supporting characters, especially Sundeen's conflicted man Ruben Vega, are all terrific.
Moon and Early would have been terrific series characters. Oh well. Great book.
VALDEZ IS COMING
This was actually the first Elmore Leonard Western I read, some months ago, and it's easily one of his best novels, Western or not.
Valdez is a lawman who gets zero respect, hired basically to do thankless grunt work. He's not taken seriously by the town's governing bodies (or anyone else, really), and when they need someone to roust a black man with an Indian wife, holed up in a cabin, they tag Valdez to do it. Valdez is forced to kill the man-- who turns out to be innocent of the crime he's been accused of. While no one else is particularly troubled by this, guilt eats away at Valdez and he tries to take up a collection for the black man's widow. And he won't allow himself to be dismissed. This leads to a violent public humiliation (one of the set-pieces of the book, a scene that's more than a little Biblical in Valdez's "crucifixion"), and being run out of town.
But his enemies have made a huge mistake, because there is only so much Valdez will endure before striking back. When he returns, he brings all Hell with him.
I thought it was interesting how it took the well-being of someone else (the Indian widow) for Valdez to stand up. He's a quietly heroic character, selfless, humble, and ultimately committed to doing the right thing. That he's the butt of the joke for so long is in keeping with some of Leonard's other work-- the two central characters in FORTY LASHES LESS ONE are similar, in that they are targets of derision who ultimately find their self-respect and prove themselves.
Like I said, this was my first Leonard Western, and one I often recommend as an ideal starting place for anyone who hasn't read a Western before. It's lean and fast-paced, with great dialogue and believable characters.
More Elmore Leonard Westerns coming soon.