Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top 10 westerns for 2013

Here in no particular order are the best of the westerns reviewed at BITS in the last year. (Click through on the titles to read the complete reviews.)

Preview audiences reportedly were roused by such strong reactions to this film that many left the theater in protest. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch immediately won a reputation for its graphic violence. Because of or in spite of that, it quickly found a place on most western fans’ top 10 list. Over 40 years later, it remains a powerful and absorbing story.

There’s an elegiac tone to this story of aging cowboys. The glory days are over for the men who used to ride the open ranges, and now they are hanging on to whatever work they can find in a shrinking rural economy. Distant corporate owners make the decisions about how the ranches are run. What used to be “money” is now “capital.”

Steve McQueen starred in this rambling movie set mostly in the West. Its central character goes by different names until almost the end, when he calls himself “Nevada Smith.” The film was a prequel, based on a character in Harold Robbins’ 1961 potboiler, The Carpetbaggers. That novel had been made into a film in 1964, the character of Nevada Smith played by Alan Ladd  as a Tom Mix-style cowboy actor.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Top 10 recent frontier fiction for 2013

While a chief interest here at BITS continues to be early and mid-century frontier fiction, we also enjoy following recent developments in the genre. Below is a listing in no particular order of ten novels and short story collections that got thumbs up during 2013. (Click through on the titles to the complete reviews.)

This collection of western stories from David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp imprint is a welcome addition of new short fiction to the genre. As followers of his online zine already know, Cranmer has a fine eye and ear for picking writers with a gift for storytelling.

This is a heckuva western novel that more than lives up to its unusual title. Mitten knows the conventions of the genre and then turns them inside out to create a sprawling narrative that ranges all over the state of Colorado. The cast of characters includes working cowboys, the worthy citizens of several Rocky Mountain settlements, and the members of an outlaw gang.

Published in 2001, this novel captures something of the sobering mood of that year. It’s about life and death and choices with unexpected consequences. Not really a story, it’s a character study of a young man emotionally marked by wartime atrocity. A Union soldier, still in his teens, he is witness to a clumsy and ghastly execution by hanging.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

One sentence journal, Dec. 22 – 28

Back from surgery

Time marches on . . .

12/22, Sunday. I do not recommend catching a plane out of Grand Island, Nebraska, in the morning darkness of 6:40 a.m. with the rental car registering 15 degrees on the dashboard and you’re stepping out onto the parking lot into a breeze straight off the northern prairie.

12/23, Monday. A postponed anniversary is observed tonight with candlelight, wine, homemade pizza, and reflections on 48 years together.

12/24, Tuesday. Still half on Nebraska time and swilling down Robitussin at regular intervals to subdue the effects of a recent visit to the winter virus belt, I have to keep remembering that somehow it got to be Christmas Eve.

12/25, Wednesday. Amused as I realize in the middle of opening Christmas gifts that both of us are already reading our new books.

12/26, Thursday. The mountains all in shades of velvet blue today, and I’m traversing streets named for Dinah Shore and Ginger Rogers to the hospital in Rancho Mirage named for a five-star general, Eisenhower, to retrieve the star of my own brief life who waits in surgery recovery for a ride back home.

12/27, Friday. The microwave stages a comeback after going dead on Christmas Eve, expiring with one last word “WARM” on its control panel, then waiting for me to discover two days later that somehow the plug had mysteriously worked its way out of the outlet.

12/28, Saturday. When you’re in your sixth day of a cold, you find your focus drawn to chicken soup recipes, getting out the slow cooker, and rummaging in the kitchen for ingredients.

Image credit: Ron Scheer

Coming up: Top 10 recent frontier fiction

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: G
(gad - going tick)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

gad = a goad; point or stick used for driving draught animals. “He poked ’er in the ribs with the butt o’ his gad.” Frederick Thickstun Clark, In the Valley of Havilah.

Gainsborough portrait
gag = a deception. “No, ma’am; you don’t run any such gag as that on me.” Dell Munger, The Wind Before the Dawn.

gage d’amour = a pledge of love; a love token. “I fancy Mrs. Belknap thinks as you thought,—that it was a gage d’amour.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

Gainsborough hat = a womans broad-brimmed hat resembling those shown in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). “Mrs. Ballinger was with her in gorgeous raiment, as usual, this time I think some sort of a figured silk in soft pink and blue with a wide Gainsborough hat.” Patience Stapleton, Babe Murphy.

Man in gaiters, 1901
gaiters = shoes or overshoes extending to the ankle or above. “‘What’s the matter with these old shoes?’ she exclaimed, turning about with a pair of half-worn silk gaiters in her hand.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

gaillardia = an American flower of the daisy family, cultivated for its bright red and yellow blossoms. “The gold of yellow midsummer light dyed in the asters and sunflowers and great flowered gaillardias and golden rod, with an odor of dried grasses or mint or cloves.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

galley-west = askew, confused, lopsided, scattered
Gailardia suavis
in all directions. “That scheme was knocked galley-west and crooked.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

galligaskins = loose trousers, leggings. “Some of the infantrymen got tired of sewing up three-cornered tears in their galligaskins.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

gallinipper = a stinging or biting insect. “That what I'm payin' you for, you blame gallinipper!” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

Boy, single gallows, 1840s
Galloway = a Scottish breed of beef cattle having a coat of curly, black hair“Again it was a black steer that was released—a hornless galloway, as wild as a native buffalo and as fleet as an ordinary horse.” Kate and Virgil Boyles, The Homesteaders.

gallows / gallus = a pair or one of a pair of suspenders (braces), to support the trousers. “A full-lipped, full-blooded little urchin, his trousers held up by a single gallows, stood beside her.” Willa Cather, The Troll Garden.

gally = distasteful, impudent. “It’ll be good riddance of bad rubbish. They’re too gally.” Eleanor Gates, Alec Lloyd, Cowpuncher.

gambade = a leap or bound. “What I ought to do now is to gambade after him.” S. Carleton Jones, Out of Drowning Valley.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ten-best forgotten books of 2013

Every Friday, book lovers gather at Patti Abbott’s blog where links to their reviews of favorite “forgotten books” are posted. Many of the books are from pulp fiction and genre writers of the mid-twentieth century.

My contributions are mostly reviews of westerns and frontier fiction, some dating back 100 years. Looking over the past 12 months, I’m picking ten of them that were my “best of the year.” Here they are in no particular order (click through for my reviews):

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott's blog.

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas wishes

This whole CD has been my companion during this Christmas season, cycling through random mode on my car stereo.

I wish you a holiday season that is mellow as Oscar Peterson's music. May the days bring all you hope for and a new year full of promise.

The Appaloosa (1966)

Marlon Brando, for some reason, has never seemed an easy fit in western movies for me. His face and his voice are so deeply grounded in On the Waterfront, Guys and Dolls and, later, The Godfather. He seems to have wandered far from home when he shows up on the frontier, as he does here.

Whether it is he or a double in the opening shots, riding across the vast western landscape, it looks like someone who has never been on a horse before. Muttering his lines as he stops by a church for a confession in an early scene, he seems to be trying on a character that is beneath his range as an actor.

Donning a huge brimmed sombrero and serape to recover an Appaloosa stolen from him by John Saxon in the first reel, he begins to bristle with menace. It’s almost like watching the Hulk pop out of Bruce Banner’s shirt. His steely determination is pitted against the grinning arrogance of Saxon and his pistoleros. While Saxon’s grin is malicious, Brando’s is blood curdling. For all that, he’s still not a character this side of villainy we expect to find in a western.

Marlon Brando
Plot. The plot of the film is simple, almost like a fable or folk tale. Diffident and soft-spoken, Brando returns from “the war” where he killed men and “sinned” with women. Saxon wants to buy his horse for a girlfriend (Annjanette Comer). When Brando refuses to sell, Saxon steals it and heads into Mexico. Brando follows and is taken prisoner by Saxon. In a suspenseful scene the two arm wrestle for the horse, the loser to be stung by a deadly scorpion.

Comer helps Brando flee with his horse, eager herself to escape the clutches of Saxon, who follows them into the mountains and attempts an ambush. Brando, exhibiting his skill with a rifle, puts an end to Saxon on the snowy mountain slopes and returns to the U.S. side of the border. A friendly Mexican family waits there to welcome him back.

Three stars. The widescreen cinematography of the title sequence is almost breathtaking. We see the desert Southwest and a small lone figure riding horseback across the terrain. Camera work in the rest of the film, however, gets to be awkwardly self-conscious. Almost invariably there is someone or something between the camera and the action, sometimes nearly filling the screen. At times the film seems more style than content.

Monday, December 23, 2013

One sentence journal, Dec. 15–21

Sandhills pasture in winter

Time marches on . . .

12/15, Sunday. Early Christmas gift: a warm watch cap from L.L. Bean that I will not take off until next spring.

12/16, Monday. Look up: in the desert sky swirls and slowly shifting shapes of high, thin clouds against stark blue, an edge of them briefly catching a flash of brilliant color from the ice crystals of a mid-day sun dog.

12/17, Tuesday. Full moon in a misty haze of early dawn clouds, shining between the slats of the kitchen window blinds as I wait for coffee, impatient for solstice and an end to these long dark nights.

12/18, Wednesday. Off at short notice to Nebraska, to join relatives for a family funeral, searching through closets before I go to find warm clothes and discovering a forgotten wool coat long zipped away in a garment bag that somehow escaped donations to Goodwill.

12/19, Thursday. Turns out there’s not a single normal sized car to be had at airport rentals in Grand Island thanks to pre-Christmas travel, and after a moment’s thought, I decide to take the remaining Ford Expedition, with its seats for nine passengers and a heater that this California driver forgot you have to wait for the engine to warm up before turning it on full blast.

12/20, Friday. It is 10 degrees in little Worms, Nebraska, where the gateway to the church cemetery says “Est. 1873” and I’m following a fresh footpath through last night’s dusting of snow to join a hundred or more gathered by a new grave, and a minister in white vestments, without a hat on his thinly-haired head, says last words, his voice resonating in the cold with Scripture readings promising life everlasting.

12/21, Saturday. I head out of town for a two-hour drive along highway 2 toward Broken Bow and the Sandhills, stopping every 20 minutes to take pictures of harvested fields, a frozen creek, and rolling grassland and discovering Ainsley (pop. 431), with two vacant storefronts side by side, built in 1916.

Image credits: Ron Scheer

Coming up: Marlon Brando, The Appaloosa (1966)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: F
(forcemeat – fuseloil)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

forcemeat = finely ground and highly spiced meat, fish, or poultry that is served alone or used in stuffing. “It was a very comfortable meal,—soup with force-meat balls, chicken, beef dressed with peppers, a dish of spiced pumpkin, another of fried beans, fine flour cakes, and light sour wine of the Mission’s own making.” Mary Austin, Isidro.

foretop = a lock of hair growing above or arranged on a person’s forehead, a forelock. “His foretop was long, and he wore it over one ear like a hoss’s when the wind is blowin’.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

forfeits = a parlor game in which a judge requires the owner of a personal item to perform an act or stunt to retrieve it. “Every mother in the house knew what forfeits and post-office meant; some of them were watching the players at their peculiar merriment.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

forninst = opposite to, facing; alongside. “Chilkat Jo, man, look what devil’s work is going on forninst ye! Can’t ye say the word to stop it?” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

forty drops = alcohol (40 drops equal ½ teaspoon); “Forty Drops,” a popular 1890s rag tune. “We’re all in the Red Light takin’ our forty drops, an’ Sam Enright brings up this yere Wilkins.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

forty rod = cheap, strong whiskey, said to be strong enough to kill at a distance of forty rods (11 miles), or to give the drinker strength to run full-speed at that distance, or to permit a drinker to walk no far than that distance. “An average twenty-wagon outfit, first and last, would bring him in somewheres about fifty dollars—and besides he had forty-rod at four bits a glass.” Stewart Edward White, Arizona Nights.

forty ways from the jack = in every way possible. “He’s the only man ever got me skinned forty ways from the Jack.” Marguerite Merington, Scarlett of the Mounted.

forty-five ninety = a round of ammunition introduced in 1877 by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company. “‘Keep a constant eye on the grub.’ ‘And on the forty-five-nineties,’ Captain McGregor rumbled back as he passed out the door.” Jack London, A Daughter of the Snows.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ed Gorman, Blood Game (1989)

This hard-boiled "midwestern" is set in the summer of 1892 in some unnamed city big enough to turn out over 4,000 fans for a nasty boxing match. The focal character is Leo Guild, a 55-year-old bounty hunter convinced by a boxing promoter to help stage a fight between a white man and a black man. A bloodthirsty crowd is expected, believing they’ll be witness to a killing in the ring—and not the killing of the white fighter.

It’s an ugly set-up, and Guild has seen enough of the world to know it’s not much different from what passes for everyday human behavior anywhere. Stoddard, the promoter, is a tyrannical blowhard, loved only by a loyal son, Stephen, whom he abuses and scorns.

The white fighter, Victor Sovich, is equally hateful. Given to insane rages, he abuses women and boasts that he likes to kill people. One young fighter died during a bout after Sovich poisoned him to slow him down in the ring. His opponent in the upcoming match is a Franklin Rooney, a man past his prime whose only aim is to survive the fight. The longer he can stay upright, the more he gets paid. He only half understands that the crowd has gathered to see him die.

Kansas City, Missouri, 1906
Guild meets a pistol-packing mama, Clarise Watson, intent on avenging Sovich for the poisoning of her brother. Guild, unconcerned by their difference of color, maneuvers to keep her out of harm’s way. Also keeping her company with hotel breakfasts and after dark walks, he discovers her to be a consenting adult.

Stoddard hires Guild to guard the day’s take during the fight. He has promised Sovich to split it with him, but hires a thief to conveniently steal it. Sovich will get nothing, and Guild is intended for a bullet during the robbery. By mid-novel, death is in the cards for several characters, and however it plays, you know it will all end in tears. Which it literally does.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dallas (1950)

I’ll start with the one good thing I can say about this muddled western—Gary Cooper. His face is often the only sign of life on the screen, while the clichés, crazy plot turns, and groaners pile up around him. 

Plot. The plot of this film is not so much contrived as simply a chopped salad of worn out story ideas from B-westerns. It’s a confusing mix of revenge, switched identities, a love triangle, a Confederate colonel who has never surrendered, the theft of a ranch, rustlers, a villain pretending to be an upstanding citizen, a sociopath killer, and lots of shooting and chases on horseback. 

With several characters pretending to be someone else or someone different, I was often unsure about who knew what about whom. I admit, it was late in the day and I was not at my sharpest, but it was all more than I could keep track of.

Cooper. I give the guy credit for holding his own in this one. As long as Cooper was on the screen, a scene seemed to be clear, even when it wasn’t. I finally just took to watching him, as you do when a situation is puzzling and you look for someone who acts like they know what’s going on.

Gary Cooper, Ruth Roman
An unexpected twist involved a black cat that we see Cooper absently petting for a while—something I don’t recall ever seeing in a western before. It seemed like a wonderful throw away detail, even as the cat appears on a windowsill next to Cooper during a gunfight. Then the script has him step on its tail to get a reaction out of the other man. A long build-up to a cheap trick. Argh.

A viewer might argue that the film is meant in part to be a comedy. It opens with a gun duel in the street between Wild Bill Hickok and Gary Cooper’s character. It’s an attention grabber if we know that Hickok died in Deadwood, playing cards. But Cooper is the star of the movie and can’t expire in the first reel either. Though shots ring out and Cooper drops to the ground, looking dead, it turns out to be a ruse. Not all that clever, but it gives you hopes for a movie that never quite lives up to that moment again.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Alfred Wallon, Showdown in Abilene

Review and interview

Originally published in 1981—in German—Showdown in Abilene was the first novella in Alfred Wallon’s Rio Concho series. Published now for the first time in English by Piccadilly Publishing, it’s in many ways a love letter to the American West.

Plot. With an abbreviated story that could well fit neatly into a one-hour TV western episode, Wallon introduces readers to a trail boss, Jay Durango, and his crew of cowboys. They have just arrived in Abilene, Kansas, after a summer-long cattle drive from Texas.

Encouraged to have a good time in town by the marshal, Bear River Tom Smith, but to stay out of trouble, the cowboys make an attempt to comply. But under the influence of too much alcohol, they cause a disturbance at the Opera House. Before long, they’re cooling off in jail.

More serious trouble is in store for Jay Durango. A pair of villains abduct him and hope to leave him dead in a shadowy corner of the red light district. Arson figures in to further plans for a bank robbery while a section of town burns. Bullets finally fly proving once again that crime rarely pays.

Railway, Abilene, Kansas, c1867
Pleasures of the text. There are many things to enjoy about the story and the storytelling. In Wallon’s hands a reader senses the pleasure of spinning a yarn from the familiar elements of the material. His characters are not only full of life. They are sketched in with hints of backstory that make you curious about them.

Durango, for instance, has what seem to be troubled memories of soldiering for the Confederacy. Returning to Texas, he’s in hopes of a new beginning. Billy Calhoun, the young son of the rancher he works for, was for two years abducted by Quanah Parker’s Comanches. He rankles at Durango’s attempts to supervise him. There’s even brief reference to a black cowboy, Bob Rennington.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

One sentence journal, Dec. 8–14

Time marches on . . .
Stormy weather

12/8, Sunday. Stormy weather, cold wind and clouds rolling over the mountains from the coast, with snow in the high elevations but dry here on the ground—living in a rain shadow.

12/9, Monday. Department of Where Has the Time Flown: Watching Johnny Mathis sing a Christmas song on The View this morning and remembering a concert in Chicago in 1961 when we were both in our 20s.

12/10, Tuesday. With the rest of the country and Canada in a deep freeze, it seems hardly right to complain about 38 degrees outside this morning, so I won’t.

12/11, Wednesday. Starting into chapter 1 of a western in German that begins: “Als Jim Whittaker über den Pass kommt, kann er das lange Tal unter sich bald immer besser übersehen.”

12/12, Thursday. A strip of half-inch weather stripping has finally found its way to the top of a door at the back of the house, and I’m waiting for the next cold snap to see if the room feels any warmer.

12/13, Friday. Edgar Allen Poe notwithstanding, the ravens here in the desert always sound to me like they’re laughing to themselves about something—and just like it’s gallows humor.

12/14, Saturday. Community Service Department: On walks in the desert, I’ve stopped picking up other people’s trash.

Image credits: Ron Scheer

Coming up: Alfred Wallon, Showdown in Abilene

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: F
(flannel cake – forced draft)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

flannel cake = a flat cake of thin batter fried on both sides on a griddle. “Billy pronounced the flannel cakes superior to flapjacks, which were not upon the bill of fare.” Owen Wister, Lin McLean.

flannel face = loudmouth, braggart, one who talks much to little effect. “‘Damned scoundrel’ sliden’ from yer flannel face is like a coyote roundin’ on a timber wolf.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

flannel-mouthed = slow talking; loud; boasting; characterized by deceptive speech. “You ask for dirty work to be done, an’ when that dirty work’s done, gorl-darn-it you croak like a flannel-mouthed temperance lecturer.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

flapper = an arm, hand. “Y’u see, I get him in the flapper without spoiling him complete.” William MacLeod Raine, Wyoming.

flat head = a stupid, foolish person. “I enjoyed myself first rate, an’ upset a couple o’ delivery wagons because they wouldn’t make way for me, roped a runaway steer ’at had the whole town scared, an’ chased a flat-head clear into the Palace Hotel.” Robert Alexander Wason, Happy Hawkins.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

James Welch, The Indian Lawyer

First published in 1990, this is a thoughtful and suspenseful novel by a Native American writer from Montana. I had previously read his Winter in the Blood (1974) and The Death of Jim Loney (1979). All three novels concern the complexities of living as an Indian in a white-dominated world.

Unlike the struggling social cast-offs in the earlier novels, the protagonist of The Indian Lawyer has by all appearances successfully assimilated to white culture. Sylvester Yellow Calf has parlayed statewide recognition on the high school basketball court into a university education and law school. He is now one of the rising members of a high-end law firm in Helena.

With influential friends, he may well rise further from his humble origins on the Blackfeet reservation, where he was abandoned by parents and raised by a grandmother. Early in the novel he is approached by a member of the Democratic national committee to run for Congress.

His pleased but almost diffident response to that offer signals something not quite substantial in the identity he has assumed as a promising young lawyer. Beneath his confident surface is an uncertainty that the reader suspects and that he is mostly unaware of. The break from his reservation past has left him without either real roots or clear ambitions. Despite his achievements, he remains an outsider.

Blackfeet reservation, Montana
Single, he has known a good many women in his short life, and his current girlfriend is the daughter of a rancher and former Senator. While she is ready for a deepening relationship with Sylvester, he remains tentative, conscious of the disapproving glances of whites when the two are out together in public.

He lets her slip away, as he has done earlier with a high school counselor he was once fond of. Sliding into what seems to be an old groove, he violates all professional standards by allowing himself to be sexually intimate with a new client. It may be an old groove for him, but it’s also thin ice.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Law and Jake Wade (1958)

This noir western from director John Sturges is smaller scale than his big films (Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven), but a quietly intense gem. Richard Widmark leads the cast in a role that recalls the grinning malice of the hoodlum he plays in Kiss of Death (1947). Robert Taylor, dressed in black, is the handsome marshal who was once his partner in crime.

Plot. Taylor, in an act of good will, leaves his post in another town to spring Widmark from jail. He expects enough gratitude to let bygones become bygones. But Widmark isn’t easily appeased for what he considers as Taylor’s betrayal when he “ran off” after their last bank job, taking the loot with him.

It is buried now somewhere in the desert, and Widmark isn’t about to let matters rest. He wants the money. He and his gang take Taylor and his girlfriend (Patricia Owens) hostage across mountain and valley to retrieve it. Once that is accomplished, it’s not clear whether he intends to let either of his captives live.

Taylor and Owens manage to make an escape, plummeting down a dusty slope and making off on foot along a ravine, but Widmark soon intercepts them. Then their progress is interrupted when they are stopped by a small company of cavalry, whose lieutenant warns them of a band of renegade Comanches roaming the hills.

Widmark, Owens, Taylor
Undaunted, they continue to their destination, which turns out to be a ghost town, where Taylor has buried the money in the cemetery. With the end game in sight, matters take an ominous turn as the Comanches wage a night attack that has them all fighting for their lives. Morning light brings burial of the dead and there’s a final resolution to be reached between Widmark and Taylor.

Highlights. I’m calling this a noir western because many scenes take place at night. Most of the characters are outlaws, each with his own sinisterly dark persona. Particularly menacing is Henry Silva with the occasional leering comment directed at Owens. There’s a hard-boiled edge to the dialogue, as when Middleton is asked whether any words were said over the graves of the men he just buried. “Yeah, goodbye,” he says.

The performances are fine with Widmark and Taylor well matched as adversaries. The supporting cast is also strong. Besides Owens, who easily holds her own in the company of desperadoes, there is the wonderful character actor, Robert Middleton, as a man with torn loyalties. Shot in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, the film is a Cinemascope travelogue capturing the scenic beauty of the Sierras under winter snows.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Trails of the Wild

This collection of western stories from David Cranmer’s Beat to a Pulp imprint is a welcome addition of new short fiction to the genre. As followers of his online zine already know, Cranmer has a fine eye and ear for picking writers with a gift for storytelling.

Beat to a Pulp readers will find some familiar names here. For sheer volume of output and award winning, that list would be led by James Reasoner and quickly followed by Patti Abbott, Chuck Tyrell, Wayne D. Dundee, Kieran Shea, and Evan Lewis. They are joined by the notable talents of relative newcomer Matt Pizzolato.

Patti Abbott deserves mention first for not only representing her gender in a genre that has long thought of itself as rightly dominated by male writers—and second for venturing into western territory from her usual fictional domains, which I always think of as being situated somewhere in or near Detroit. (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong about that.) Her offering here, “The True Story of Boy Kaleen,” is an entertaining tour de force of Old West vernacular.

James Reasoner’s “Rattler” works a tight situation between two men with guns and a rattlesnake with opinions of its own. For someone with a snake phobia, the story has probably the surest opening for grabbing attention: “Cobb had been holed up in the rock for about an hour when the big, diamondback rattler crawled over the back of his legs.”

"Go It, You  –   –  "
Evan Lewis in “Too Many Crocketts” plagues a grandson of Davy Crockett with a talkative ghost of the man “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee.” Chuck Tyrell’s spooky “Line Rider” spends time with a cowboy too long alone and too long deprived of female company. It’s an erotic tale best described as a waltz into darkness.

Well into the spirit of western realist noir, you’ll find the expert hand of Kieran Shea. His story “A Decent Man” is a grimly melancholy account of a man attempting vainly to repay another man’s wrong. Matthew Pizzolato’s gunslinger Wesley Quaid is more successful as he confronts some bullies in “Day of Reckoning.”

That leaves the long story, “The Empty Badge,” by Wayne D. Dundee, who brings us another tale of the outlaw marshal, Cash Laramie. This one, set on the high plains borderland of Nebraska and Wyoming involves a traveling medicine show, a case of amnesia, bank robbers, and a Cash Laramie impersonator.

Together, I can say from firsthand experience, the stories collected in Trails of the Wild make for great bedtime reading. They are currently available in ebook format for kindle and the nook. 

Further reading:
BITS reviews and interviews

Image credits:
Illustration by F.W. Schulz, 1907

Coming up: Richard Widmark, The Law and Jack Wade (1958)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

One sentence journal, Dec. 1-7

The neighbors' Christmas lights

Time marches on . . .

 12/1, Sunday. Looking over the backyard fence after nightfall and watching the slow crawl of headlights along the interstate, folks headed home from the holiday.

12/2, Monday. So great seeing Clark Johnson again in a TV series (amazon’s Alpha House), and in a comedy with John Goodman.

12/3, Tuesday. Nicked my thumb carving Thanksgiving turkey with a newly sharpened knife, and the darn thing still wants a bandaid.

12/4, Wednesday. Getting yet another Privacy Notice from yet another service provider, I have to wonder whether I have any privacy left.

12/5, Thursday. There’s a mesmerizing light show on the wall as late afternoon sun slants through the window blinds, throwing flash-dancing shadows of the windblown palms outside.

12/6, Friday. I guess it was time for a remake of that recurring dream of missing a flight—always either to or from Heathrow, and this time a little red sport car I once owned figures into the plot.

12/7, Saturday. The neighborhood Christmas light show has begun.

Image credit: Ron Scheer

Coming up: Trails of the Wild

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: F
(facer – flannel band)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

facer = an unexpected problem or obstacle. “A facer lay ahead of them beside which the mere receipt of the five letters was nothing.” Edgar Beecher Bronson, The Red-Blooded.

fade = to put at a disadvantage. “‘Twas a foight av his own pickin’, an’ he knows ye’ve got him faded.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

fagging = to tire, weary. “It was his way to pick out the roughest possible path before him, to settle within himself that it was that of duty, and to follow it without fagging or complaint.” Gwendolen Overton, The Heritage of Unrest.

faille = a slightly ribbed, woven fabric of silk or cotton. “I’ve had things ’most as fine as Lutie’s. Satins, brocades, failles, grosgrains, taffetas, all kinds, anything I wanted.” Nancy Mann Waddell Woodrow, The New Missioner.

Caroline Norton
“Fair Bingen on the Rhine” = a sentimental poem by British poet Caroline Norton (1808-1877) about the death of a soldier in Algiers. “By his side was his wife, Amelia, the reigning favourite, who could play the piano and sing ‘Fair Bingen on the Rhine’ with a dash that was said to be superb.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord. Full text here.

fairy lamp = a small, glass candle lamp that gained popularity during the 1880s and '90's. “A fairy lamp burned over the great open fireplace, and by this he saw her go to the child’s little crib.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.

fairy well = a small pool of water or spring into which visitors dropped pins or buttons for wishes to be granted. “Judith, going to her favorite pool to bathe, saw that it had shrunk till it seemed but a fairy well hid among the willows.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

fakir = a street salesman of cheap goods. “It’s but a little phrase, ’tis true, / ‘ Its meaning well each ‘fakir’ knew.” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

fall into snap = achieve success easily. “Brother Josh, now he was little fellow, fell right into snap t’once.” Frances Charles, In The Country God Forgot.