Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Max Brand, Best Western Stories, 3

Going from early western fiction to this collection of Max Brand stories was something of a jolt. Emotions run high and wide in them, and the sheer intensity of the storytelling knocks your boots off.

Editor William F. Nolan selected seven stories for this slim volume, published in 1987. They originally appeared over a span of only a dozen years, 1927-1939. Three appeared in Western Story Magazine, and one each in Collier’s, Argosy, Blue Book, and American Magazine. So they range in style from pulp to slick.

Just from this sampling, you can sense Brand’s ability to strike different attitudes with the material and play in different keys. If there’s any consistency, it’s the tendency to toggle back and forth between stereotype and the unexpected in the same story. Or to simply switch keys.

While a story races along, the intent seems to be to get you to let down your guard. Then you are surprised by shifts in the plot and character that you didn’t see coming. It’s hard to tell whether Brand does this carelessly or deliberately.

The collection kicks off with “Reata’s Peril Trek,” which first saw the light of day in Street & Smith’s Western Story Magazine in 1934. Like noir fiction, the story takes place in a godless universe, where risking death for a friend is the highest (and maybe only) virtue and cowardice is the deadliest sin.

March 31, 1934
While the early western novel makes an effort to seem realistic, Brand rejects the historical West for an imagined one. The story has a dream logic that makes sense only in the world of its own contrivance. It is a perilous world, where bad men abound and evil lurks everywhere.

In this story, a criminal mastermind, Dickerman, controls a network of henchmen who do his bidding over a vast area of western terrain. Like a plot device from a Batman episode, they communicate with each other using reflected sunlight from high elevations. In an attempt to rub out the hero, Reata, they trigger a rockslide from which he barely escapes. All of this happens in the opening pages.

But Dickerman is not as evil as they get. A more mysterious figure, known as LaFarge, is even more fearsome. He has a plot afoot to get his hands on a fortune by luring its rightful heir to an isolated house and doing away with him. In the climax of the story, Reata and two compatriots make a daring rescue.

While writing what’s already an exciting page-turner, Brand laces it all with imaginative twists. Reata isn’t just a generic hero. He rides a sturdy but ugly horse named Sue and travels with a small dog, who is a fearless tracker. Instead of a six-shooter, Reata carries a pencil-thin leather lariat in his pocket and uses it with lightning speed and accuracy.

And Dickerman isn’t your generic villain. He is a junk collector and lives in a junk-filled barn. Not so predictably, he’s also a cook of no small skill. Meanwhile, there are sudden strokes of realism, as when Reata rides for two days on a nonstop relay of horses provided by Dickerman. Like any normal person after such physical punishment, Reata is near to collapsing from pain and exhaustion.

Brand’s style contributes greatly to the breathless forward movement of the story. A writer will notice his unrelenting use of action verbs in sentence after sentence. Then he can wring every ounce of suspense from a scene by going into prolonged slow motion as a confrontation approaches.

He can also be vividly visual. In this story, he describes how a man locates a trapdoor in the floor of a dark attic. He does this by making out the broken outline of a square made on the ceiling by the light from a lamp in the room below.

December 13, 1924
For its structure, maybe the best story in the collection is “The Third Bullet,” published in Western Story Magazine in 1924. It gets off to a shaky start with characters that are little more than cardboard cut-outs. A young rancher, Chris Ballantine, has single-handedly operated a ranch inherited from his dead parents, and he’s raised a younger brother and sister who are now spoiled and ungrateful.

It’s a crisis point in his life because he’s mortgaged the ranch for all its worth, and the bank will not loan him another cent. The flaw in his character is that for all his hard work and self-sacrifice, he has done it for others. Worse yet, it has made him look weak. When no one pays him any respect, including the girl he loves, he decides he’s done with being Mr. Nice Guy.

While Wister and earlier writers concerned themselves with the quality of a man’s character, Brand’s stories are more about achieving manhood itself. And that’s measured by physical strength and daring. Chris begins a change by spending his last money on a magnificent but willful horse and spurring it into submission.

Giving up responsibility for the ranch and for supporting his siblings, he dishes out some rough justice to a couple of townsmen who’ve treated him badly. This triggers some pushback, and the violence gradually escalates until he’s in a classic showdown with a gunman come to avenge the shooting of a friend.

What Chris achieves by story’s end is a different kind of self-respect from what he had at the start. Now people admire him for being tough and not running from a fight. And he relishes a new-found freedom that comes with the self-confidence he has won.

This theme is played out in different ways in two other stories, “Crazy Rhythm” and the autobiographical “The Sun Stood Still.” But Brand’s versatility is evident in the rest of the stories, which touch on other themes, especially male bonding.

In “Dust Storm,” a Dust Bowl rancher risks his life to restore the friendship between two men whose lives he once saved. “A Lucky Dog” brings two adversaries together in a snowbound cabin, and “The Half-Partner” is a feel-good story about the loyalty between two starving gold miners.

According to legend, Brand had little respect for this outpouring of his popular fiction or the movie business he wrote for in his later years. After reading his stories, I find this hard to believe. Too much imaginative energy has gone into them.

Collections of Max Brand's westerns can be found at amazon and AbeBooks. Numerous Max Brand novels are now available for the nook.

Image credits: Galactic Central (

Coming up: Ralph Connor, The Sky Pilot (1899)


  1. "Imagined one" indeed. Max Brand writes like none other in the history of western fiction. I bought THE COLLECTED WORKS OF MAX BRAND on Kindle for a buck and it is a steal.
    Ron, you may enjoy this book that I did a review on a few years ago:

  2. Yes, Faust is a genre all to himself. I really enjoy his work, although like many other writers, it's best not to read too much of it too close together. His mysteries and historical adventures are just as good as his Westerns.

  3. William Nolan was Guest of Honor at Pulpfest last year and was on the Black Mask panel. I've read complaints over the years that he changed and rewrote some of the Max Brand stories collected in the Best Western Stories series.

    Many of Faust's serials were abridged for hardcover publication and the best way to read him is to read the actual fiction in WESTERN STORY. He used to be quite popular among many old time pulp collectors but most of these readers have died off. As James Reasoner indicates above, much of his work is of variable quality and it is best not to read too many novels one after another.

    I have found his work to be good, mediocre, and poor, which should not be a surprise since he wrote at a very fast pace, seldom revising his fiction.

  4. I've been told that Faust's son-in-law Robert Easton, who wrote THE BIG WESTERNER, edited Faust's novels when they were published in hardcover by Dodd, Mead, but I don't know if that's true. All the Faust reprints since Jon Tuska took over managing them supposedly use the original texts.

  5. Speaking of Jon Tuska, he and Vicki Piekarski edited THE MAX BRAND COMPANION, which at over 500 pages is full of fascinating details about Brand and his work. Tuska has a nice chapter on WESTERN STORY and he also addresses the practice of abridging the serials for hardcover publication.

  6. David, enjoyed your review of the Brand bio. I just acquired a nice copy of a Brand novel I'll be reviewing shortly.

    James and Walker, thanks for chipping in. I always appreciate your perspectives on pulp lit and the depth of your encyclopedic knowledge. Considering the high price for a used copy, the COMPANION seems to have become a rare book, and it's available for Reference only at the LAPL.

  7. Ron, I recall commenting on this post and others left comments also. Do you know what happened to our discussion?

  8. Walker, I wish I'd kept them. They were apparently lost in the Blogger meltdown last week. Another entire post with comments was lost, and other strange things have happened.