Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Adverts from McClure’s Magazine (1907)

Every work of fiction tells us something about the audience and the times it was written for. Today, however, we may have trouble picturing the readers of early frontier fiction. For many of us, they were the parents of our grandparents—or even their parents—adults before the end of the 19th century, dependent on a horse-drawn technology and an agrarian economy.

From the movies and TV, we know what the Old West itself is supposed to have looked like, but it’s harder to imagine that period of time around 1900 when frontier fiction emerged as a genrethough they were clamorous years, as the Gilded Age dissolved into the Progressive Era (imagine the white-haired Mark Twain morphing into Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt).

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Aerial ballet (more pics below)
Turns out the dread I felt about my first infusion as I started into the drug trial at UCLA was unnecessary. Though the procedure lasted 90 minutes, it was mostly a nonevent. Dripped into my bloodstream by way of an IV was not chemo but something called a monoclonal antibody (Avastin), developed to restrict blood flow to tumors and discourage them from growing.

Already approved by the FDA for treatment of cancer, it has been shown to be effective after 6 months in 45% of cases like my own. So while the odds are roughly the same as the flip of a coin, they’re not actually that bad when you consider the alternative. Other trial participants, randomly selected as I was, receive the test drug(s), so they will fare better or worse than me—hopefully better, for the sake of all concerned, current and future.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz

I guess you’d call this creative nonfiction. A former colleague recommended this book to me after reading some of my thoughts on the life-affirming and health-inducing aspects of listening to jazz as I deal with a visitation of brain cancer. The great irony is that the joyous practice of improvisation in smoky clubs of the bebop era was so virulently self-destructive for its musicians.

In Dyer’s evocative and impressionistic character sketches of several of its iconic figures (Lester Young, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus) we witness mostly downward trajectories, as drugs, prison, racism, alcoholism, mental illness, and violence take their toll. Whether or not you think of them as survivors, you come to understand that the music they invented and played was an act of defiance and subversion in the face of demons both internal and external.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Now available: How the West Was Written, Vol. 2 (1907-1915)

David Cranmer over at Beat to a Pulp Press has just announced publication of Vol. 2 of my book series, How the West Was Written. It continues the chronology of western writers that began in the first volume with Mary Hallock Foote's The Led-Horse Claim (1883). Here is a short description of the new volume from its introduction: 

During the years 1907–1915, frontier fiction boomed with new writers, and the success of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) began to make itself felt in their work. That novel had made the bestseller lists for two years running. With the continued popularity of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, and the appearance of one-reeler westerns on movie screens, many featuring the adventures of Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero was becoming an established mythic figure in the public imagination. 

New writers capitalizing on this interest begin to emerge in numbers and include Zane Grey, Dane Coolidge, Charles Alden Seltzer, William MacLeod Raine, and Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Fans of cowboy westerns will find this book's discussion of these storytellers of particular interest.

Meanwhile, for writers of popular fiction, the frontier was also a subject for exploring ideas drawn from current public discourse—ideas about character and villainy, women’s rights, romance and marriage, democracy and government, capitalism, race and social boundaries, and the West itself. With each new publication, they participated as well in an ongoing forum for how to write about the West and how to tell western stories.

Taken together, the chapters of this book describe for modern-day readers and writers the origins of frontier fiction and the rich legacy it has left us as a genre. It is also a portal into the past, for it offers a history of ideas as preserved in popular culture of a century ago that continues to claim an audience today.

Currently available at amazon for kindle and in paperback. Also in paper at Createspace. Order both volumes from amazon here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Illustrators of early frontier fiction:
Frank E. Schoonover

Frank E. Schoonover
Born in New Jersey, Frank Earle Schoonover (1877-1972) was a painter and illustrator, who studied with influential American artist Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. A creator of more than 2,000 book and magazine illustrations over most of a century, he helped to organize what is now the Delaware Art Museum.

Schoonover's work ranged from illustrations for Clarence E. Mulford's Bar-20 westerns to pirate tales (click here) and science fiction/fantasy by Edgar Rice Burroughs (click here). Below are examples of his illustrations for frontier fiction appearing in books and magazines, 1905-1918.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Uneasy alliance

Another day
So now I am officially lending my body to medical science. Last week we made a trek to the neurooncology department at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, and I signed onto a drug trial, which may or may not halt the progress of the tumors in my brain, but there isn’t much in the way of an alternative. The oncologist was not in favor of more radiation.

It’s an uneasy alliance between me and Big Pharma. It will require trips to LA every 2 weeks for long infusions, and the list of possible side effects is daunting, ranging from nausea to death itself. But there’s a chance we will both profit in some way from this gamble. Whatever the outcome, there will be something to be learned for others in the future. Because it’s important for me to feel useful, this is one way to be doing that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Robert J. Randisi, ed., Livin’ on Jacks and Queens

This is an entertaining anthology of 14 stories about gamblers and gambling in the Old West. Editor Randisi has assembled a notable gathering of western writers, providing an array of storytelling styles and imaginative treatments of the subject. The names of several contributors will be quickly recognized: Johnny Boggs, John D. Nesbitt, Matthew P. Mayo, Nik Morton, and Chuck Tyrell.

To these he has added a story of his own, plus the yarns of two women writers who may be new to some readers: Christine Matthews and Lori Van Pelt.

My favorites of the bunch include Ms. Matthews’ “Odds on a Lawman,” which tells of a succession of sheriffs who each assumes a tenure of service to a frontier town, before dying or disappearing for various reasons, on which the townsmen place bets until the turn of events claims one of them the winner. It’s an amusing and well-written tale that brings its Dickensian cast of characters to entertaining life, while we wait to see the fate that befalls each of the town’s series of sheriffs.

For a colorful portrayal of the daily life and business of a riverboat gambler, Nik Morton brings that world vividly to life in his story, “Hazard.” In “Acey-Deucey,” John D. Nesbitt’s central character is hired by a woman to retrieve an emerald pendant once given to her by a paramour. Finally locating the current owner of the gem, he has to win a game of cards before he can take possession of it.

Robert Randisi
Randisi’s story, “Horseshoes and Pistols” is so quirky, I kept thinking that it qualified as Twilight Zone material. In it, two men are forced to bet their lives on a game of horseshoes. Matthew Mayo’s “Pay the Ferryman” veers off in another direction, as a man on the run escapes into what might well be called “the heart of darkness.”

My favorite story in the collection was penned by a favorite storyteller, Chuck Tyrell. His “Great Missouri River Steamship Race” evokes a period of river travel from the point of view of a youngster working as a fireman aboard a steamship with a regular route between St. Louis and Fort Benton. Tyrell brings his gifts for characterization, dialogue, and suspense to this story with its echoes of Huckleberry Finn.

Livin’ on Jacks and Queens is currently available in ebook format at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Shamelsss plug: For an in-depth survey of early writers of frontier fiction, read How the West Was Written (to obtain acopy, click here).

Image credits: fantasticfiction.co.uk

Coming up: Illustrators of frontier fiction, Frank E. Schoonover