Cowboys battle monsters in the lost world of the forbidden valley!
Stark says: GWAAAAAANGI!
Cowboys battle monsters in the lost world of the forbidden valley!
Stark says: GWAAAAAANGI!
The Western isn’t dead. It just has a problem with logistics.
Go into your local bookshop and look for the Western section. Chances are, there isn’t one. So where do Westerns end up? Sometimes they sit confusedly with Science Fiction or Fantasy. Sometimes, they’re lumped in with Crime. Often, they’re spread through general Fiction. Interestingly, Westerns are almost always scattered: the only place I’ve ever encountered a dedicated Western section is in my local library.
People have been predicting the comeback of the Western for years.
There have been some notable hits on both the big and small screen: Django Unchained, HBO's Deadwood, and the True Grit remake, among others. While the pulp Western novel is buried in a dusty hilltop cemetery in Wyoming, there have been some excellent more literary takes on the genre, including Philipp Meyer's The Son and, going further back, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series. You also can't ignore the impact of the massively popular game Red Dead Redemption. But somehow this trickle of new Westerns has never become anything more than that.
My theory is that, in fact, the Western is back ... but as the Zombie genre. (ZomGen? Zomre?)
Stark says: Don't let the sun burn a hole in your ass, William Blake.
Dead Man is Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to the Acid Western genre; something I’ll be fixing my beady eye on in future reviews. The Acid Western was a product of the sixties; by and large, it takes the best of the Spaghetti Westerns – the vistas, the journeys, the lone individual and the uneasy alliances – and mashes them up with existentialism, surrealism and, in the case of Dead Man, black comedy. Imagine if Leone made All the Pretty Horses in the style of Blazing Saddles, and you’d be… not that close, but oh well.
A very specific Friday Five this week, to celebrate the release of Paradise Sky, the new Western from Joe Lansdale. Lansdale is the author of everything from the bizarro horror comedy Bubba Ho-Tep to the apocalyptic creepiness of The Drive-In to the steampunk hijinks of Zeppelins West to the rural noir of The Thicket to the long-running Hap and Leonard mysteries.
He is a personal favourite not only for his versatility, but for the incredible quality. Whatever Lansdale's writing, be it fun or somber, humorous or horrific, it is always a delight to read.
So... where to start? Or, if you've nibbled on a bit of Lansdale's writing, what to try next? Below, five of my favourites, all from different genres...
Hap Collins and Leonard Pine are one of the best detective duos in fiction, full stop. Imagine Sherlock and Watson, except without money, education, superhuman talents, a medical degree or any sense of Victorian dignity. So, really, don't imagine them at all. Hap and Leonard are both washed out West Texans ... general do-gooders, with day jobs that range from working at a deck chair factory to dubious 'security' gigs.
Hap thinks of himself as an ex-hippie pacifist (he's not, really) and Leonard is 100% pure hardness (except for his love of vanilla cookies) - as you'd need to be as a gay black man in rural Texas. Savage Season not only introduces the duo, but is an excellent example of one of their classic darkly comedic adventures, with betrayal, skulduggery, sleazebags and... a rather powerful emotional core.
“Gun-Queen of the Arizona Frontier!” the original movie tag-line proclaims, “And her kind of men!!!”
We’ll ignore those exclamation marks for a moment and stick to the facts: Vienna has opened a saloon on the edge of a small town, right on the proposed line of the railway. Jealous local cattle-farmer Emma Small wants her gone. When her brother is killed, Emma falsely accuses Vienna and her friends – a group of honest-ish bandits and silver miners – in a bid to get rid of her and her saloon, once and for all.
Based on the book by Roy Chanslor (who also wrote The Ballad of Cat Ballou) Johnny Guitar is weird, subversive, camp as hell and utterly unforgettable. Here are my two cents...
In 1860, [Will] Bill [Hickock] was placed in charge of the teams of the Overland Stage Company, -which ran between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Denver, over the old Platte route, - at Rock Creek, about fifty miles west of Topeka, Kansas. It was while occupying this position that the first and most desperate fight of his life occurred, and one which we may safely say is without a parallel.
The author collected the facts and particulars of this fight from Capt. E. W. Kingsbury, at present chief of U. S. Storekeepers for the western district of Missouri, who was a passenger in the overland stage which arrived at Rock Creek within an hour after the fight occurred, and saw the bodies of the men Bill had killed, and heard the story fresh from Bill’s own lips. Capt. Kingsbury’s version of the encounter is corroborated by Dr. Joshua Thorne, one of the most prominent physicians in Kansas City, who was Wild Bill’s physician during his life, and at whose home Bill was a frequent and familiar visitor. Bill repeated the story to Dr. Thorne several times, just as he gave it to Capt. Kingsbury. Bill had very few confidants, but among that privileged class were the two gentlemen mentioned, who, by their permission, will be frequently referred to hereafter.
The correct story of the “battle,” as we may very properly call it, is as follows:
I'm fascinated by Westerns - especially the way that the tropes and tricks of the genre have been appropriated and/or assimilated into other styles of literature. Playing with the idea that Westerns now exist everywhere (...except as Westerns), what are the hooks for discussion?
The Western genre peaked in the 1960s. Why?
Age of the genre means that it has had many more stages of growth/descent/evolution [fantasy equivalent]:
What does this mean for the progression of a genre? (Other examples of contemporary but well-developed genres: romance) Are genres teleological? What does this mean for fantasy and SF?
I'm always fascinated by the occasions when famous genre writers - the legends of the legendary, if you’ll excuse the horrible workplay - write literary or non-genre fiction. In many cases, they're still exploring those same tropes and themes and issues that appear in their fantasy or science fiction. Is it possible for them to write about destiny and free will without prophesies? Or create escapism without dragons? To craft heroes without Dark Lords?
Back before David Eddings set the world on fire (magical blue fire) with the Belgariad in 1983, he fiddled about in literary fiction. His first novel, High Hunt, was published in 1973. Contemporary and introspective, it is a far cry from the bombastic cosmic conflicts that would later make him famous. High Hunt is a bit like Robert Jordan's The Fallon Blood, in that publishers have tried - repeatedly - to republish and remarket it for the epic fantasy market. But that's where the similarities stop for, unlike The Fallon Blood, High Hunt is actually good.
High Hunt follows twentysomething Dan Alders as he returns from military service and tries to settle in back home. Like Eddings, Dan was posted to Germany (Eddings was in Germany during the Korean War, while Dan’s story takes place during Vietnam). And also like Eddings, Dan is a Washington native - in High Hunt, he returns to Tacoma. Not because he's particularly excited about seeing his old stomping grounds - rather, he's got nowhere else he needs to be.
And this is where the story begins: Dan, freed from service and, in fact, freed from everything. No girlfriend, no parents (his father is dead, his mother an alcoholic that he hasn’t seen for years), no friends - nothing. He’s got money in his pocket, a bag of civilian clothing and a vague plan to attend the University of Washington to get a graduate degree when it starts up next year.
Like much of High Hunt, what happens next is comes down to a whim - a supposed impulse. Dan, casting about for someone to spend a bit of time with (he's just out of the service, after all), rings up his semi-estranged older brother, Jack. They get together and, much to Dan's surprise, they hit it off. And, again, for the apparently lack of anything better to do, Dan gets absorbed into the circle of Jack's life. He moves in to the same trailer court, he meets Jack’s friends (and wife) (and mistress); Dan commits to being in Tacoma until his degree programme begins.
Somewhere between three and five reviews, depending how you count them: Lee Floren's High Gun, J.L. Bouma's Vengeance, Eric Lambert's The Long White Night and Guy Boothby's The Kidnapped President and A Crime of the Under-seas.
Eric Lambert's The Long White Night (1965) - a story of war and its consequences. Lawrence Primrose is a born soldier, a working class stiff who 'finds himself' when he joins the army. He quickly rises through the ranks to become a completely detestable sergeant. He's by the book, unrelenting, priggish - but we forgive him because he's also a fierce bastard in combat, saving his men over and over again.
This is why his court martial for cowardice is such a surprise, and why the officer that breaks him, Colonel Goss, is the real monster of the piece. Years after the court martial and the fateful battle that prompted it, Johnny Hume (once a terrible soldier, now a half-decent psychologist) has set himself to reveal the awful truth behind the events of that fateful night.
The majority of the book is a helter-skelter mix of present day (Hume trying to find Primrose in the years after the war) and past (from boot camp through to the battle). This is all neatly managed, as the author makes untidy Hume and uptight Primose both empathetic and intriguing characters. The latter especially - the snarky Hume is a bit too much of a literary cliche, while Primrose seems to have some genuine pathos to him. What they do during the war, and how it impacts their lives after it, is all connected and capital-m-Meaningful. The author has a clear bone to pick with over-stuffed post-war politicians and a stratified class system, two themes that come through very clearly and by no means harm the book - it is good to read a book on war and its aftermath that tries to paint a picture broader than the central redemption story.