Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fictional Rebels

The most heroic characteristic a human being can have, I believe, is the complete unwillingness to submit his/her will to anyone or anything. My heroes in fiction and film tend to be the ones who don't do what they're told, who kick constantly against the pricks and refuse to bow. Is this slightly infantile of me? Yeah, probably. But I don't care. It's what I respond to.

In real life, all of us submit in one way or another. We sorta have to, sorry to say. Whether it’s to an employer, a relationship, a personal god, the government, whatever. Partial submission is part of that social contract we have with the world. And that’s probably why some of us balk and fidget when we feel constrained by other things, things that we feel we can actually control.

Even in the movies and in literature, the heroes who don’t back down usually meet tragic ends. They die, or even worse, become part of the machine. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, but I choose to think that the lesson is this: death is the trade-off. The hero lived life free.

It’s why I like that Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down”, or even John Mellancamp’s “Authority Song”. It’s why I was drawn to punk when I was a kid.

Here are some of my heroes who refused to submit:

Cool Hand Luke. 

What drove our boy Luke to struggle against his restraints when everyone else gave up? What made him attempt escape over and over again, when he knew it would eventually end in tragedy? He was the very embodiment of the slogan, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Huck Finn. 

Huck wasn’t even aware that he was kicking against authority. He wasn’t a conscious rebel. And his mind was still enslaved, in some ways, by the bigotry of his time. But in his gut, Huck knew that THEY were wrong and HE was right.

Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape”. 

Another prisoner, like Cool Hand Luke, who valued his freedom above all else, even life. He attempted escape from the concentration camp so many times, and was re-captured and sent to solitary confinement that he became known as The Cooler King.

Tom Horn.
McQueen again, playing the real life role of a man who valued personal freedom and integrity so much that he was willing to go to his death for it.

Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”. 

What are you rebelling against? What do you got?


Don Diego de la Vega dons a disguise to fight the oppression of the peasants by cruel Spanish rulers in colonial era California.

And then, of course, there’s the “real people fictionalized” category—historical rebels like Pancho Villa, Spartacus, William Wallace.

I’m sure there are tons more I’m not thinking of, iconoclasts and fighters who value independence and free will more than life itself. Who are some of your favorite rebels?

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Sloppy Beginnings of Hawthorne

A few years ago, I took a stab at creating a series character. It worked out, ultimately, but in the most twisted, non-linear way imaginable.

I’d been reading a lot of Robert E. Howard (which is something I’m wont to do) as well as some H.G. Wells, and thought it would be fun to sort of mix up those worlds a little. So I came up with an idea for a series of long short stories featuring a Victorian/Edwardian era hero facing off against REH-style supernatural forces.

The hero evolved into a stoic, brave Mississippi gentlemen, globe-trotting around the world in pursuit of an arch-enemy I never got around to introducing. The hero’s name, initially, was Gray Morrow—a name I really liked, until I discovered that there was a very popular illustrator with that name. It must have been in my subconscious or something; it’s a pretty unusual name, and what are the odds I would just come up with it out of the blue? In any case, I changed his name first to CLAY Morrow, then ultimately Grey Hawthorne.

Grey Hawthorne, with his burning sense of duty and his impeccable manners, was pretty fun to write about at first. I did two stories featuring him—“The Nine Pale Men” and “The Bones of the Conquerers”, both of which were published at The Nautilus Engine, and started a third before the concept started running out of steam for me.

The character, while interesting in the short term, wasn’t suitable for a series. He just didn’t have that much meat on his bones and the back-story I hinted at over the course of the two published stories wasn’t as fresh or intriguing as it could’ve been.

Don’t get me wrong—I think both of them are pretty solid supernatural adventure stories, but Grey Hawthorne was a bit of a dead end. I dropped him and moved on.

But the desire to write a series character involved in supernatural high adventure kept nagging at me.

When I was asked last year to write a long short story for a small publisher, I came up with a weird western tale called “That Damned Coyote Hill”. It was one of those stories that you just make up on the spot, with only a vague idea, and fortunately it turned out to be a pretty good story that readers seemed to respond to. 
The protagonist was/is a mysterious gunslinger with a jagged cross scar on his forehead, on a mission to seek out and destroy evil wherever he finds it. Why? I didn’t know at the time, but it didn’t really matter.

I named him Hawthorne, just like the other guy. No first name, though.

The two Hawthorne’s are not the same guy. They just have the same name. What can I tell you? I like the name Hawthorne.

But this second Hawthorne proved to be much, much more fun to write about, and the reader response prompted me to consider more stories about him. Unlike the first Hawthorne, this one wasn’t conceived initially as a series character. That changed for me pretty quickly.

After a couple of false starts, I wrote a second Hawthorne story, “The Long Black Train”, which should see publication within a couple of weeks, from Beat to a Pulp Press.

I also finished a third one, “The Spider Tribe”, which—I’m almost ashamed to admit—was salvaged and cannibalized from the remains of “The Nine Pale Men”, the first adventure featuring Grey Hawthorne. If you’ve read that one, you’ll see many similarities between the two stories (am I the only one who has cannibalized his old work for a new story?)

The fact that there are three completed stories about gunslinger Hawthorne means that he’s already out-done his gentlemanly predecessor. And I’m halfway through a fourth story about him right now.

Still not sick of writing about him. That’s a good sign, I think.

“That Damned Coyote Hill” will be released this week on e-readers from David Cranmer’s fantastic Beat to a Pulp, to be followed shortly by “The Long Black Train”. “The Spider Tribe” will be along later, and, hopefully, even more horror/western stories of Hawthorne II.

Best Pulp Covers: Whip Hand

Charles Willeford writing as W. Franklin Sanders.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Punk Rock and the Young Writer

Well into middle-age now, music still holds a very important place in my life. I find it odd that so many people in my age group, people who once LIVED for cool music, have moved on and forgotten the role music played in their younger lives. That hasn’t happened to me, fortunately.

I was lucky to grow up in a household where music was essential. My mom was a fanatic for Elvis Presley, had all his records. She also dug Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, etc. Her collection of 45’s and 33 1/3’s was big enough to keep a ‘50’s-‘60’s style radio station going for months without repeating a single song. And she listened to records every day.

My stepdad was a country fan. And I mean REAL country, not this modern pop-country crapola. Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Hank, Merle Haggard.

So that was the music I grew up listening to. Other kids my age were into Journey, or Steve Miller Band or The Eagles. I didn’t like any of that stuff. I still don’t.

In fact, I didn’t like most of the music my peers were listening to until I was sixteen and was finally introduced to punk. I DID have a slight obsession with Pink Floyd (because I was a moody little fuck) but punk changed the game. I owe that to a girl named Lana Mini (who is still, against all odds, a good friend of mine after all these years). I remember telling her I kinda liked that Billy Idol song “White Wedding”, which was getting a lot of air play on MTV at the time. Lana gave me two cassette tapes (kids, a “cassette tape” is an ancient form of recording sound, used by the cavemen back in the days before the Great Digital Revolution). The cassettes were: The Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks and Iggy Pop’s Soldier.

Those two tapes changed my whole life. Honest.

Within a year an entire world that I hadn’t even suspected existed opened up to me. I discovered The Clash, The Ramones, the New York Dolls. The Stooges, of course. X. The Cramps. The Dead Kennedys. The Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers. On and on… so many great bands. And it wasn’t long before my entire life was consumed with the pursuit of new sounds.

At the same time, I maintained a solid love of old music—country, rockabilly, surf, psychedelic, soul. In my mid-twenties, I started unearthing obscure garage stuff from the ‘60’s (thanks, in large part, to the monumentally life-altering Nuggets box set). Bands like The Sonics, The Count Five, ? and the Mysterians, made me realize that punk had been around a LOT longer than the term “punk”.

There were musical side-trips along the way. In the mid-to-late ‘80’s, there was a short-lived but inspired sub-genre called “cowpunk” that grabbed me by the throat, mixing punk up with more traditional folk sounds like country or blues. My favorites were Beasts of Bourbon and The Gun Club. I think that genre crossing opened up punk’s horizons dramatically.

In my ‘30’s, I started getting interested in old bluegrass and roots country, like Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family. Also, about that same time, jazz, cats like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver. I followed that thread through to Dizzy, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis. Stopped short of “fusion jazz”, which I still don’t care for. I NEED melody.

In fact, I just NEED MUSIC. I NEED it. Could you imagine a world with no music? I don’t think I could survive it, I really don’t. It means as much to me as reading and writing.

So there’s my little musical biography, if you care.

Now excuse me, please. I’m gonna go listen to some Tom Waits.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

How to Jump from a Horse to a Moving Train

In the story I'm working on at the moment, there's a scene where the protagonist (Hawthorne) is required to jump from his running horse and onto a moving locomotive.

Yes, I know it's been done before, many times, in countless Western pulp stories and action movies. What's your point?

The funny thing is, there's nothing on line about exactly HOW to do that. You'd think that, since it's such a stand-by action-y thing to do in Westerns, you'd be able to find some, I don't know, Stuntman's Bible or something to lay out all the steps involved. But I couldn't find a damn thing.

So I was forced to make it up. Here's how you do it, according to me (oh, by the way-- DON'T ACTUALLY DO THIS, WHAT ARE YOU , AN IDIOT? How sad is it that I feel the need to actually say that?):

First, spur your horse alongside the train. Make sure the path ahead is clear and smooth, so the horse doesn't stumble.

Keep a steady pace that matches the speed of the train.

Transfer the reins to the hand farthest from train. Make sure you know exactly where the hand-hold on the train is, and that it can support your sudden weight.

Remove feet from stirrups, and very carefully bring the leg closest to the train up and onto the saddle.

Crouch on saddle.

Launch yourself off the horse, thrusting with your legs. Sort of like diving off a board.

Grab hand-hold on train.

Ta-da! You have successfully jumped from a horse to a moving train.

Now get inside that train and deal with the bad guys!

**did I mention, by the way, to NOT DO THIS? Just making sure.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

There Will Come Soft Rains

The man who made me want to be a writer is dead.

When I was about ten or twelve, I read a story by Ray Bradbury called "There Will Come Soft Rains", and it quite literally changed my life. I've already talked about that here on this blog; here's the link to it, if you're interested: "To Keith, Thanks, Ray Bradbury".

I'm not shocked, of course. After all, he was 91 years old. Most of his contemporaries died DECADES ago. By all rights, Bradbury shouldn't have lived as long as he did. To what do we owe his longevity? I'm going to guess:

Joy. Pure and simple. He loved what he did. He loved the life he'd chosen for himself. I once read an interview with him in which he said he'd "never done a real day's work" in his whole life. Which is only kind of true; writing is work. But the thing is, it was work that he loved, and if you love doing something, it doesn't really feel like work, does it?

Sometimes I complain about writing. "Oh, writing this story is like pulling teeth." "It's lonely, sitting by yourself and putting words together." "It's maddening, this business of pouring out your darkest heart on the page." Sob, sob, sob. Ray Bradbury probably would've slapped me right in the head for all that whining.

"Where is your joy?" he'd probably say to me. "Where is your appreciation? You have a gift, and you have the leisure to use it. You are lucky."


Bradbury was a bit of a sentimentalist. I'm not. And yet... and yet I feel profoundly sad about his death. I feel like some vital part of my own life has slipped away, even though it wasn't the man himself that affected me-- it was his stories. And they are still here. They won't die, ever.

I can't explain it.

The deaths of famous people rarely affect me. I felt sad when Johnny Cash died, and Joey Ramone. That's about it. And for the same reason that I now feel sad about Bradbury-- they were prime figures in my formative years.


R.I.P., Ray. And thank you. You are gone, but the world will continue on without you, just like that automated house in "There Will Come Soft Rains". It will continue to function, without your direct influence anymore, but something vital and life-like will be missing. It will continue until, finally, it doesn't.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Ugly Glamor of WWII

I can’t recall exactly how or why I first started becoming interested in World War II. The seeds of it probably go back to childhood, reading Sgt Rock comic books and playing war with my cousin/best bud Jim. We had the toy guns, the plastic rifles. Any bit of military equipment we lacked simply became invisible grenades or canteens or compasses hanging on our belts. An invisible grenade exploded just as well as a real one, in our minds.

Neither of us knew the first damn thing about WWII, of course, and the particulars would have bored us anyway. For us, it was just a bunch of good guys in green uniforms and helmets wandering around Europe and getting in the occasional gunfight with the Nazis.

As an adult, Jim would join the Army for real. He did his tour overseas, saw light combat in Iraq. Not me, though. I have said, on occasion, that my damaged eye kept me from joining the military, but the truth is: I don’t think I would’ve done it, even if I could have. Scratch that; I KNOW I wouldn’t have. By the time I was 18, my interest in playing soldier had disappeared. Jim not only served as a young man, but actually went back again, in his 40’s, after a long career as a cop in Tennessee. His wife didn’t want him to. He had absolutely no reason to do it. But he did. He struggled to get himself back into shape, re-upped, and got sent off again to Iraq, where he did another few years.

Why? Well, he wanted to serve, is what it comes down to, I guess. He wanted to do something for his country, and military service, to a certain way of thinking, is the ultimate service.

But, between you and me? I think there was something else, also. I think he liked the taste of it.

Being a soldier. Being young and powerful, taking an active role.

I think he was nostalgic for war.

The difference between me and Jim, when we played soldier as kids, was one I didn’t understand until many years later: for Jim, it was about the military, and for me it was about WWII, specifically.

I didn’t want to be a solder unless it was WWII.

But as a kid, it was a vague, unfocused thing. As an adult, my real interest in that conflict began and like I said, I’m still not sure what sparked it. But I started reading about it in the compulsively methodical way I approach every subject that interests me. I read a sort of overview first, a terrific book called WORLD WAR II: A SHORT HISTORY, by Michael J. Lyons, and then followed that up with—believe it or not—the Time-Life series about the war that broke it all down chronologically and in more detail. After that, I started focusing on particular battles and incidents and facets that interested me the most—DESPERATE VENTURE, by Norman Gelb, about the Allied invasion of N. Africa. CITIZEN SOLDIERS, by Stephen Ambrose, about the push into Europe after D-Day. A BRIDGE TOO FAR, by Cornelius Ryan, about the disastrous Operation Market Garden. Watched about a ton of documentaries.

But it was never about war, exactly. It was always about World War II, specifically. I had, and have, very little interest in Korea, Vietnam, or even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t really know why. It’s not meant as any sort of insult or disrespect to the combatants of those conflicts. It’s just that there’s always been a certain… something… about WWII that touched a perversely romantic nerve deep inside me.

And yes, yes, I know… there’s nothing romantic about it. No one was having a good time, and it was decidedly unglamorous. I know that.

But most of us who weren’t there sort of feel the same way, don’t we? There’s no point in pretending otherwise. Those of us who’ve only experienced the raw emotion of WWII through books and documentaries and even Hollywood blockbusters… we are lured and stirred deep inside by the drama of it, by the sheer epic scale on which the action takes place. It’s stupid and we know we shouldn’t feel that way and yet we do. Hollywood knows this about us, and that’s why we still get stirring, action-packed tales of WWII on the big screen on a pretty regular basis.

Here’s something I should mention: I don’t generally idolize soldiers. Yes, I respect them, but in the last few years (dare I say, since the terrorist attacks in Sept, ’01) we’ve begun to develop, at least in America, a sort of Military Fetish. The media and popular opinion will brook NO negativity about our soldiers. These are young men and women who have been placed on a pedestal that’s almost Christ-like in its sanctity, as if by the very act of putting on a uniform you are immediately elevated into the realm of sainthood.

But yes, there is heroism in war. There is sacrifice and fear and an emotional intensity that those of us who have never worn a uniform can only imagine. In WWII, all of that was amplified by the sheer magnitude of the conflict.

But not all the heroes were wearing uniforms. The vast majority of dead during the war were civilians, fighting to regain their liberty or just to survive. The peasant woman in Russia was a hero, and so was the Greek farmer who lost his family and joined the resistance and so was the little girl interred in a Japanese camp in China for the duration of the war.

So tomorrow is the anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe and the beginning of the end of WWII. I intend to take a moment to reflect on the tremendous cost of it, not ponder too much on why exactly it has captivated my imagination for so long, and hope that, in the future, normal human beings are not forced into the reluctant and devastating role of hero.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

THE BASTARD HAND is free. Amen.

THE BASTARD HAND is free for a limited time, as part of a new promotional campaign from New Pulp Press. You can download it for your Kindle at Amazon. And if you have time/inclination, spread the gospel to the heathens a little.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Legend or Worm Food (from Vincent Zandri)

I don't normally do links and what-not here, but I really liked this one a lot. It's from my friend Vincent Zandri's blog, The Vox. Clicky here.