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Review Round-up: Knitters, Pirates, Cops, Princesses and Priests

TheBig SinA quick-fire round-up of eight recent holiday reads - including some vintage mysteries, a brand new fantasy, a YA that'll have you in stitches (fnar) and a saucy pirate romance. Most of these were recommendations via Twitter, so thank you all for sending them my way!

Prologue Books are one of my go-to publishers - whomever is putting together this list of out-of-print fiction is doing a cracking job. (Also, they use Amazon well, so I can find their books by searching Prologue Crime or Prologue Western, which is really helpful.) Anyway, that baseline of praise established... Jack Webb's The Big Sin (1952) might be one of my favourites so far. Webb's story ticks all the right narrative boxes: a cop versus a Big City machine, a man framed for murder, criminals being forced to choose between doing 'bad' and doing 'evil', the works. And, beneath it all, he underpins everything with a discussion of faith.

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Stark Reviews: Robin Hood (1973)


Stark says: “Listen Friar, you’re mighty preachy, and you gonna preach your neck right into a hangman’s noose.”

Sounds like a Western, doesn’t it? What if I told you there was also a corrupt Sheriff, a ruthless Land Boss, a shooting contest, a root-tootin’ barn dance, a pair of outlaws and a stagecoach heist? No, it ain’t The Quick and the Dead. It’s Disney’s Robin Hood and for this month’s review I’m going to forgo my usual Good-Bad-and-Ugly rating and bust a gut trying to convince y’all that this film is actually a Western.

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The Music of Nashville: TV's Only Country Fantasy Epic.

It’s not secret that I love Nashville. Hell, it seems to me like the half the SF/F community does too: it’s a fantastic country epic fantasy.

What makes Nashville such a great show isn’t the fast paced storylines or the addictive, soap opera style cliffhangers, intense relationships or the glamorous cast with gorgeous clothes and fantastic hair, or even the music itself. What makes it great is that it is essentially about two complex, intriguing, ambitious women, their careers and their relationship with their art. 

"Postcard from Mexico"

Created by Callie Khouri, who is perhaps best known for having written the screenplay for Thelma & Louise, Nashville is very much a show about two adult women whose main conflict isn't with each other (no cat fights here, just well timed snark), but with those who stand in the way of their careers and their independence. Complete control over their lives, that’s all they want. Why must it be so difficult? Well, because that makes for good songs along the way.

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The Western isn't dead...


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.

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John Wordsworth on "How the Zombie Ate the Cowboy"

Screenshot 2015-07-06 15.58.24

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?)

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Stark Reviews: Dead Man (1995)


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. 

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Friday Five: 5 Jaunty Jolts of Joe R. Lansdale

Paradise Sky_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...

Savage Season (1990)

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.

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Stark Reviews: Johnny Guitar (1954)

JOHNNY GUITAR - American Poster 3

“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...

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Non-Fiction: "On The Making of an American Legend"

Wild BillIn 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:

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