The Civil War: A Narrative (Vol. 1) by Shelby Foote

The Civil War is not my favorite conflict to read about. I save WWI for that honor, and horror. Nor does the Civil War contain my favorite battle to study. The Battle of the Atlantic from WWII interests me most, although I admit Shiloh is a solid #2.

Therefore, though this war is not my favorite to study or read about, I must admit the sheer beauty of Shelby Foote’s writing, and his mastery of language and narrative, brought this war alive to me in ways I never thought possible.

Foote is probably best known for his contribution to Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary which aired a couple of decades ago on PBS. Fewer people know he penned (literally — he used a dip pen on the philosophy he didn’t want anything mechanical between him and the paper) a three volume, one million-word, narrative about the Civil War and its battles.

Good writing always carries me forward through any book, no matter what the subject or genre. There’s a lot of good writing in this first volume. Foote makes the men and women of that time real. He helps us understand the thought processes and political decisions behind the principals not by viewing their lives through the lens of modern times, but by viewing their lives and challenges they faced through the philosophies and beliefs that governed populations at the time. This is a history that lives up to the breadth and scope of a national tragedy, showing it as a life-changing event for everyone who was involved in any capacity. It simply is one of the best history books I’ve ever read on any subject, ever.

Now that I’ve finished Volume 1 I am eager to begin the second. I have a few other things I have to finish reading first, but then I will start with unrestrained eagerness.

I think you should give this a peek. It is very well written and one of the best things I have read all year, aside from Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo.

I Will Sail My Ship Alone

Science fiction grew up in the New Wave era. That’s when editors and writers began to push the genre past its pulpish roots and demand better writing, better stories, better literature overall. Readers responded. SF literature will never return to its past of Flash Gordon rockets and bug-eyed monsters in anything other than nostalgic retrospective, or self-parody. And that’s a good thing.

Science fiction grew up. Took it a while, but it did. Mystery has long been mature since Poe. Horror was born mature. Even romance, sometimes nailed for its frivolity, is/was a mature and serious genre.

Not so westerns. I see a lot of bad elements in this genre, a genre I currently work in and love.  It’s like myth and stereotype are considered the norm. Way too many writers seem to be okay with that.

That really bothers me.

I’m not talking about the writing itself. There is bad writing in every genre. I’m talking about the perpetuation of myth and hoary stereotype as the foundation for the genre itself.  That bothers me because it’s a sign of laziness from the writers and no expectation of anything other than sameness on the part of the reader.

Yeah. That’s upsetting to me. These are people who view Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell as iconic, Americanized and Anglo-perfected figures, instead of the flawed characters John Meston intended them to be: A violent psychopath aborning and a two-dollar ragged-out whore with no future. Two lost people marking time with each other as the land and culture change irrevocably around them. That’s what Gunsmoke was about, envisioned by its creator, John Meston. He went out of his way to challenge every stereotype and myth perpetuated by people like Howard Hawkes and John Ford, along with cartoonish icons like Roy Rogers, the Cisco Kid, Tom Mix, and the LI will sail my ship alone.one Ranger. Kid stuff. Maudlin melodrama. Popcorn.

That took real courage on Meston’s part, his desire to bring a level of adult power to the western genre. I respect that. I respect anyone who is willing to buck the system and challenge trends and expectations.

There are good  writers out there working right now to change the genre. Ed Gorman. Loren D. Estleman. Matt Braun to some extent, though he can be iffy. In the weird west category Jennifer Brozek comes directly to mind as one of my contemporaries. But these people are/were good writers to begin with, so it’s no surprise they write westerns that don’t depend on hoary myth as a backdrop, or mawkishness as a foundation.

As a reader I personally enjoy stories that challenge perception and expectation. Stories that elevate the reader’s experience and broadens their emotional horizon always have my respect. All good stories do that on some level. All good writers do that. Popcorn is fun to munch on, but it’s not good for long term sustenance.

I think the one medium where westerns have gone a long way in growing up are, surprisingly, the movies. There are still western cartoons being produced, or aspects of western cartoons. But there have been many fine adult western movies that push the envelope. I see many more examples of that in movies than I do in current literature.

It’s a shame. I don’t know why western literature can’t seem to grow out of its juvenile past. But I refuse to write pulp, or myth, or stereotype. I know it’s the accepted norm in a lot of western literature.  But I will sail my ship alone.

Destination Future Interview: “Rubber Monkeys”

Mary-Grace Ellington interviewed me about my story “Rubber Monkeys” in the anthology Destination: Future published by Hadley Rille Press. Here’s the link and I hope you give it a peek. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it gave me an opportunity to think about the story in a deeper way, which is always a good exercise. :)

Destination: Future Interview

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy — a Review

“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.” –Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West might be one of the top five novels of Modern American literature.

I say “might be” because it is probably too soon to make that judgment even though the novel was published in 1985. Moby-Dick did not gain dominance over American literature until after WWII and it was first published in 1851 to mediocre reviews and multiple head-scratching.

Sometimes it takes decades for an American novel to assume its rightful place in the rarefied pantheon of Great American Novels. I know some critics have placed McCarthy’s work there. Personally, I think it is safe to say Blood Meridian is not deserving of that distinction…not yet. But one day it could be, and probably should be.

Nevertheless, Blood Meridian is, without doubt, a definitive western of lasting power. It is, by any metric, a masterpiece of emotion, raw moment, and language:

“When the dogs announced them the sun was already down and the western land red and smoking and they rode singlefile in cameo detailed by the winey light with their dark sides to the river.”

Blood Meridian tells the story of the Glanton Gang (historically accurate) working the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s who murder Native Americans for their scalps. (This was actually quite a lucrative business.) Already animalistic the gang starts scalping anyone who falls across their path and sells the scalps for gold. The novel deconstructs myths and Hollywood-inspired tropes promulgated upon an unsuspecting public.  I say “unsuspecting” because many readers (and, sadly, some writers of the genre) have been nurtured and pampered through the bubblegum influence of pulp magazines, Saturday morning television, and cartoonish movie serials.

This dangerously simplistic notion the Old West was one thing explicit, when we have solid historical proof it was quite another, has taken deep root throughout our Western Culture. Many western writers toil in the overarching shadow of this awful growth and its pervasive, debilitating influence. This becomes evident in the now-infamous line of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence when a newspaperman sagely opines if the legend becomes fact, one should by necessity be forced to print the legend. Thus, the power of myth, and its ability to sometimes usurp and weaken historical evidence.

Blood Meridian breaks those barriers down with grim remorse. At its core are philosophical elements of Gnosticism and Nihilism. However, the violence on every page is in no way symbolic or meaningful. McCarthy doesn’t use violence for shock effect or to elevate character description. Nor does he use it as a cheap literary device to move his readers. In his novels, and Blood Meridian in particular, violence exists for one reason: because man exists.  Only once in the entire novel does a character allow himself to wonder if there is any other being in the universe more terrible than Man. The answer is quite clear: there is not. We are alone on that red plain.

From the pronouncement “war is god” to the line “If god meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” the terrifying and enigmatic antagonist, Judge Holden, moves with unadulterated power through the entire novel. The Gnostic influences are evident both in his philosophy and his determination to judge not only the men around him but the very world itself. This dovetails with the grim actions of the gang and how they interact and shape the Texas-Mexican border through their own violent actions. It is an amazing novel.

I can’t promise you will like Blood Meridian. One suspects many readers will be turned off by the unremitting (almost uncaring) violence and the cold, enigmatic ending. We have been conditioned to believe violence must mean something, that it must have cause and thereby fit neatly within our dualistic universe. Books, movies and television have conditioned us to believe the world must be righted if canted over, and all will be wrapped in a neat, pretty bow before the credits roll. That simply doesn’t happen in this novel. Because, as Judge Holden argues via his very actions, violence just is.

I definitely recommend this novel. And, if you write westerns of any type, you would do well to read this American masterpiece and perhaps learn something from it about the western genre, and maybe even yourself. It’s that powerful.

“In One Stride Comes the Dark” is the anchor story in a new anthology

My new Haxan story “In One Stride Comes the Dark” is now available in the anthology Beast Within 2: Predator and Prey from Graveside Books. I am really excited about this because I appear with some very good writers, and got to work with a fantastic editor, Jennifer Brozek. But, also, my Haxan story is the anchor story of the whole anthology!

I mean, really, how awesome is that? I am very flattered by the recognition. Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s the link to Graveside Books. The anthology is also available at other places like Amazon. Thanks!

I got a new guitar!

Last weekend I bought a brand new classical guitar. It’s an Orpheus Valley Sofia handmade by Kremona, a small company in Bulgaria. Yes, you heard me right, Bulgaria. Kremona makes some beautiful instruments and I’ve got one!

I’ve been practicing and playing with it. Wow. The sound is fantastic with deep and tonal quality. It’s a true classical quitar so the strings are a little farther apart for the intricate fingerwork that style demands. It has a cedar top, mahogany bridge, bone nut and Savarez strings. It’s magnificent and I think I’m in love. The rosette around the sound hole is simply gorgeous, too.

I just love it. Here’s an Internet pic. Maybe someday I’ll take one myself with my camera when I’m not so lazy.

On Book Cover Design

Now that I’ve decided to self-publish my back log I took the advice from friends and went through my books looking at covers, etc. I made some notes about it. I’m sure this is all stuff you guys already know, but it helps me to get it straight in my mind and process it. So here are the notes I made as I went through my library. They are only general impressions and not meant to be inclusive.

……………………….

Cover Ideas: What works, what I like, what catches the eye.

Sacajawea — obvious historical romance cover.

Anthologies have “broad” covers, non-specific, but speak to content.

Non-fiction — historical B&W photographs or maybe illustrations. Covers can be thematic like the McMurtry novels. Series have a specific look that ties the individual stories into a whole, making everything immediately recognizable. Covers often reflect some element about the title (or genre) of a story.

Titles should be easy to read — dark on light background or light on dark. Dynamic (action) covers are really hard to do, I think, but are often seen in some specific genres like fantasy.

A series has a tag-line to let reader know what line the story belongs to: A Haxan Story, Matt Helm, J.B. Thriller, etc. Immediately recognizable and gives reader cue to buy the story, if he likes the series and knows he doesn’t have it. Quiller is another series.

My series stories: Haxan, Sugawara, Mama Luiz, etc.

“First Time in Paperback” (or print)

Genre novels have a script, format or art specific to them, for the most part.

SF — spaceships. Fantasy — dragons.

………………………

I found this exercise helpful. It made me see some generalities I might be able to use later on. The problem with generalities, though, is they can so easily fall into cliche, so I really want to avoid that. Next I will study layout and arrangement of elements on the covers.

“Thar She Sinks!”

Moby Dick is the name of this 2010 remake TV series movie. That’s how bad this movie is. They didn’t even get the title of the book right. It’s not “Moby Dick” but “Moby-Dick.” A quibble, you say? Granted. So let’s turn flukes and move on to everything else the movie gets wrong.

1. People in 1850s using modern language and expressions. That’s lazy writing and even lazier research. I don’t even.

2. A sperm whale (Moby-Dick, NOT Moby Dick) that looks nothing like a sperm whale, but has facial features similar to Jason Voorhees from the Friday 13th films. I kid you not. Wrong head size, wrong proportions overall, wrong side flippers, the eyes are the size of huge dinner plates (did the mongrels who made this film even bother to look at ONE f’ing picture of a sperm whale?)and wrong physics of moving through the water. Then again what do you expect from CGI monkeys who are more in love with the computer technology than reality? It’s white, ain’t it and it’s got a big whoppin’ flipper at the end? Blowhole, what fuggin’ blowhole? I guess this whale breathes through his mouth. Move on, technicians!

3. An Ahab that laughs and capers and smiles and jokes and gibbers with hilarity. Oh. You were expecting a grim, cold man wrapped in dark obsession…you know, like the book is supposed to be about? Sorry. This Ahab is a clown by nature. He laughs! He capers! He laughs some more! Deal with it.

4. A Stubbs who is grim and cold and wrapped in dark obsession instead of being the jovial character he was supposed to be. So. Yeah. The ignorant ungulates who made this film switched the emotions of Stubbs and Ahab from the book. I was vaguely surprised they didn’t work in a car chase and a couple of Vampire Hookers from Outer Space, because, you know, I guess they wanted to try and make the film relevant and exciting. Or something.

Look. I could go on listing howler after howler. I don’t like remakes as a rule. But if you’re going to do it, I do mind remakes that have no love or appreciation for the source material. And this film falls in that category. Okay. Enough of what’s wrong with the film. What did they get right?  Well…there was a ship named Peaquod that went a’whalin’ one day on a three hour tour. Other than that….

Seriously. Don’t waste your time with this monstrosity. It’s typical Hollywood mongrelization of a beloved classic. Trust me on this one, you’d be better off watching a bowl of goldfish. That would have more in line with the original novel than this knuckle-dragging and ill-advised remake.

And, yes, I’m being kind in my review of this film. I didn’t even mention the tender home scenes of a misty-eyed Ahab with his wife beside a crackling fire and his loving arm around her waist. Oops.


Believe it or not this is supposed to be a sperm whale. Do you see a sperm whale in this picture?

“Redemption Bound” voted best story in Frontier Tales

Wow, this was a surprise in Frontier Tales. My new Haxan story “Redemption Bound” was voted favorite story for the month of August by readers.

Here’s the link to the announcement:

“Redemption Bound”

I’ve been interviewed by The Western Online!

I was interviewed recently by The Western Online. I hope you take the time to maybe stop by and read the interview if you have time. I mostly talk about how the genre needs to welcome new voices and new experiences so it can continue to grow, and talk about some other aspects of the genre.

And for the record, I also call out Gemma Files and Jennifer Brozek for the excellent writers they are. :D

Anyway, I enjoyed the interview a lot and I hope you like it. Thanks, guys! :)

Western Online Interviews Kenneth Mark Hoover

“At the Center of the World” Published at New Myths Magazine!

My new hard science fiction story about Russian ballerinas, high-energy physics, and universal love has been published by New Myths Magazine!

I’ve always liked this story. I like all my stories but I’ve felt especially close to this one for a variety of reasons. I hope you like it, too. Just click the link, then go to their “Issue #16″ link and find my story. Sorry for all the clicking, but that’s the way they have the magazine laid out.

Thanks, guys, and I hope you enjoy the story!

“At the Center of the World”

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