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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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Notes on Westerns

WesternsJotting notes for the panel at Nine Worlds... this is not a proper post, just a collection of possible moderation 'pokes'.

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?

  • Changes in format? (death the pulp format meant death of a genre; what's that mean with the format changes in today's publishing industry?)
  • Reliance on other media? (Wikipedia cites 1960s rise and fall of Westerns as a result of volume of Western TV shows, and viewer burnout) [interesting parallel to modern fantasy]
  • Change in reader interest? (no more frontiers? Cuban Missile Crisis/Vietnam leads to public discouragement in jingoism? less romance of America within America?)
  • 'Out of ideas'? Can a genre expire?

Age of the genre means that it has had many more stages of growth/descent/evolution [fantasy equivalent]:

  • 'traditional Westerns' - Zane Grey [high fantasy]
  • pulp/commercial Westerns - Clifton Adam, JT Edson [sword & sorcery]
  • revisionist Westerns - George Gilman  [grimdark]
  • post-revisionist Westerns - Larry McMurtry, Justified [?!]
  • Western fusions - David Towsey, Firefly [New Weird]
  • literary Westerns - Cormac McCarthy, Peter Carey, Patrick DeWitt [?!]

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?

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Underground Reading: High Hunt by David Eddings

High HuntI'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.

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Review Round-Up: Westerns, War and the Under-seas

LambertSomewhere 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.

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Review Round-up: Nunslinger and Rapunzel is Dead

Two distinctly disconnected books - Stark Holborn's Nunslinger and Rapunzel is Dead. Two books that revisit - and directly challenge - established genres: the Western and the fairy tale.

Nunslinger-jacketStark Holborn's Nunslinger (2013) as an object is already interesting. Hodder & Stoughton were pioneers of "yellow-back" fiction - with a bit of effort you can still find relics of this era, with Hodder's doughty brand emblazoned on "low literature" as wide-ranging as The Saint and Zane Grey. Although certainly the imprint has a range of overtly commercial genre fiction (read Lavie Tidhar on Christopher Farnsworth, for one example), Nunslinger is an overt move to embrace this heritage: see the unrepentantly goofy name, striking covers and the  serialised format. 

The latter is an important part of Nunslinger's unique appeal - in the post-Wool days, a lot of publishers have been tinkering with this, but few works are actually created with that exact purpose in mind. Nunslinger strikes the balance of being both independent and interconnected, the individual episodes begin, resolve and immediately lead into the next. This is a "book" meant to be consumed (pardon the terrible pun) "religiously" - everything about the serial experience is intended to engender loyalty: the emotional highs and lows, the shared 'event' of a release, the continuous (if punctuated) reading. [I suspect that, with the still-rapid growth of digital and the success that's come with migrating fanfiction authors (who have naturally struck on this format) to traditional publishers, we'll be seeing a lot more of this. And, frankly, about damn time.]

But enough about Nunslinger as a book, what's so interesting about Nunslinger as a text? Is there more than a goofy name? Well... yes. A lot.

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Review Round-up: Beauty Queens! Heroes! Housewives! Chalk! Answers!

Eight even-briefer-than-usual reviews as I do some catching up: Peter Haining's The Hero, The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer, Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, Max Brand's The Streak, Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife, Pat Cadigan's Chalk, Patrick Ness' The Ask and the Answer and Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three. 

Cold War thrillers, domestic fiction, horror, young adult fantasies, Westerns and... everything else. A genre pick n' mix.

The heroPeter Haining's The Hero (1975) was terrible. I mean, I was expecting 'bad', but this was terrible. A Cold War thriller, it posits a world filled with peace-and-love-for-all except for the evil Chinese. An ordinary English civil servant is chosen to run an impossible mission behind the 'bamboo curtain': to photograph a doomsday device before the Chinese use it to level the West. A parallel narrative follows a group of film-makers as they make a movie of our hero's adventures. Neither are particularly appealing, and the conclusion is both senseless and distasteful. Oh, also racist. And filled with plotholes and paranoid conspiracy theories. If I were the type to give stars, here's an instance where I wouldn't.

The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer (1967) was my first experience of the man's work. I'm still going to plow on, as I'm extraordinarily interested in "New Journalism" as it applies to, well, blogging. A few stories fell flat with me - "The Time of Her Life", "Advertisements for Myself on The Way Out", "Truth and Being, Nothing and Time", "The Notebook"... all seemed, well, either overly deliberate or too linked to the mores of the time. Others, say, "The Patron Saint of Macdougal Alley", "The Paper House", "A Calculus at Heaven", "The Killer" are some of the best I've read. I suppose any survey of a career this diverse is going to have its ups and down, but I'm pleased that some were so good. 

Libba Bray's Beauty Queens (2011) made me laugh out loud a half-dozen times. A dark, slapstick comedy about teenage pageant competitors stranded on a desert island while a bumbling Evil Corporation does Evil Stuff in the background. Ms. Bray takes wonderful pokes at reality television, consumer culture, nepotism, television, the South,... pretty much everything. But beneath it, there's a really lovely positive message about doing what you love and being yourself - whoever you are. Very highly recommended, both as a charmingly progressive book and a hilarious one.

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Review Round-up: Madams! Savages! Wolves!

Catching up with some recent reading (of not-so-recent books): Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?, Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed and Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Mary StewartMadam, Will You Talk? (1955) is Mary Stewart's first published novel, and, from the few others I've read, sets the tone for many of the others: an attractive young woman, an exotic location, some thrills and the inevitable love interest. In this instance, we have the wonderfully-named Charity Selbourne, Avignon, car chases and an is-he-isn't-he-a-murderer, Richard Byron.

Although a "romantic thriller", the scenery is both the most romantic and the most thrilling part, with the south of France beautifully evoked. There are crumbling ruins, glorious landscapes, even the cultural quirks and proclivities (every meal, coffee, wink of an innkeeper is rendered in affectionate detail). There's no crisis so critical that Charity can't stop and have a delicious omelet at a quirky roadside inn. In fact, if Madam has a moral, is it to always stop and have an omelet - or an aperitif. Rushing around leads to confusion and musses the hair. To be fair, there are worse lessons.

Madam isn't quite as twisty and turny as I would've liked; the 'reveal' is a bit obvious and the actual "whodunnit-and-why" is, rather clunkily, pondered out at length by the protagonists. That said, as well as the gorgeous setting, Charity's an impressive protagonist, especially for 1955. Although her taste in men is a little dubious, she's never outclassed nor outgunned, and, rather surprisingly (again, 1955!), doesn't shy from action. Madam also has one of the best car chases I've read, with Charity doing her best Bond impression on the back roads of France. Madam, Will You Talk? is "charming" - not a word I'd generally use to describe a thriller, but in this case, it feels right.

Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed (1959) is a dense little Western that combines the tropes of the genre with a surprising conclusion. Given the recent conversation about tropes in fantasy (see Sam Sykes' thoughtful blog post on the topic), this came as a convenient reminder that the growing pains of one genre can just as easily be found in another. Fantasy and Westerns make a good pair: two overtly macho, American-dominated genres that are often categorised solely as escapist entertainment (and, indeed, both genres often play 'down' to that level). But Westerns, I would argue, are a more mature genre - not in sales figures (despite the critical success of Westerns, they're still on the decline), but in the way the tropes have evolved. From epic to 'grimdark' to a synthesis of the two; archaic to contemporary to back again... pretty much everything fantasy has gone through in the past few decades, Westerns went through a half-century before. 

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Review Round-up: Brothers, Wives and Children

Three rapid reviews of new releases - David Towsey's Your Brother's Blood, Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women and Kass Morgan's The 100. All of which are either out now or about to be. 

The Secret Lives Of Married Women by Elissa WaldHard Case Crime continue their recent run of brilliance with Elissa Wald's The Secret Lives of Married Women (2013). Ms. Wald is, rather shockingly, only the second female writer for the imprint (following in the footsteps of Christa Faust). The Secret Lives is essentially two interlinked novellas that follow a pair of twin sisters. 

The first, Leda, is essentially a suburban housewife. After a brief career in film and a short stint in sales, Leda is now married, pregnant and a bit bored. As she sets up her new home with her husband, Stas, she meets a friendly builder. He soon crosses the line and becomes a bit of a pest - more so when it turns out that he knows something about Leda's past that even her husband doesn't. The story takes a startling twist, but, as is the book's theme, it isn't really about the 'mystery' (or the 'plot') as much as the character's response to what happens. The events around her trigger a curious response: leading her to question what she really wants out of life... 

The second story has a bit more narrative trickery. Leda's sister Lillian is on the path for a different sort of success: she's a high-powered lawyer with a handsome husband, good money and tough reputation. One of her clients is accused of corruption, and, as she interviews a key witness (who turns out to be a former sex worker and professional submissive), Lillian is forced to confront her own hidden (or suppressed) desires. 

Understandably, this sounds a bit...er... porny. And The Secret Lives doesn't shy away from its sexually-charged atmosphere. But it uses sex - specifically, submission - as a way of challenging assumptions and societal dictates regarding of 'success' and 'happiness'. Like the best noir, this is about the subtle difference between the two. Just because you get what you want doesn't mean it makes you happy...

The Secret Lives of Married Women is more a collection of  character studies than a novel, but, individually, the stories are all fascinating. It took me a while to realise that there wasn't a big picture - nor was there going to be. This is an intense and intimate book; a compelling, unsettling read that doesn't hesitate to subvert the reader's assumptions, over and over again.

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